- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 13, 2005

AUSTIN, Texas - Starring in a reality television show was supposed to be enlightening and fun, but families on a quiet cul-de-sac in the Circle C Ranch neighborhood feel mistreated by the news media and abandoned by the TV network that planned to broadcast their story.

ABC’s “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” which was filmed in the upscale subdivision in Southwest Austin in January, was scheduled to make its debut Sunday. However, it was canceled June 29 after fair-housing and civil rights advocates voiced concerns.

The premise of the series was simple: Three white families with similar conservative Christian views would get to know seven “diverse” families and choose which one would be awarded a four-bedroom house on the cul-de-sac.

Although manufacturing conflict for mass entertainment is standard operating procedure on reality TV, this time the controversy became too hot and set off a deluge of news coverage, most of it unfavorable to the residents of Alberta Cove.

“The word I hate to hear is ‘racist,’” says Norm Powell, who lives on the cul-de-sac but was not one of the “judges.” “My son-in-law is black, and my grandchildren are mixed. We’re being labeled, and that’s unacceptable.”

Reactions to the unaccustomed diversity by some of the judges in early episodes was harsh.

“I won’t tolerate a homosexual couple living next door,” neighbor judge Jim Stewart said in promotions that aired many times before the show was canceled.

Referring to Mr. Stewart and the other judges, the Denver Post said they represented “bigotry in all its unadulterated ugliness.”

The cul-de-sac residents and others in Circle C have signed confidentiality agreements with ABC stating that they will not talk to the news media about the show, but some feel the need to defend themselves.

Mr. Stewart, for one, says he had a change of heart during the filming of the six episodes.

“Yes, I changed,” he says. “What did I learn? That everyone ought to have a chance for a second impression.”

Mr. Stewart is upset by the cancellation and worries that he and his fellow judges have “put a black cloud over Circle C.” Like his neighbors and most of the competing families, he wishes the series would air so people could see how attitudes can be transformed through interactions with people who at first seem very different from one another.

“The message we delivered in the last two or three episodes is that Americans need to open their eyes and figure out why we can’t all get along,” Mr. Stewart says, adding that he would not mind now if a homosexual family moved next door.

ABC has said the family that won the house will keep it, though nobody has moved in yet and the network refuses to say who won. ABC has refused to comment about the show since its cancellation.

Diverse groups, views

The seven families competing for the 3,300-square-foot house, which is valued at $300,000 to $400,000, were Latino, Korean and black; a family that practices the pagan religion Wicca; a homosexual couple with an adopted black child; a heavily tattooed and pierced couple; and a white family with a secret — the mom is a stripper.

“We never felt discriminated against throughout the whole show,” say Robert and La’Kisha Crenshaw, who are black, in a statement released through ABC. “If we had, we would have spoken up.”

John Bellamy, another neighbor judge, says he became friends with the competing families and resents the negativity implied in the media’s descriptions of the judging families as “conservative Christians.”

“Yes, I am a Christian, and the way I practice my faith is a positive thing,” Mr. Bellamy says. “I don’t exclude people. That’s what being a Christian means to me.”

The subdivision is in a relatively affluent area. The homes in Alberta Cove are worth up to $400,000. More than 80 percent of Circle C is white, and voting records indicate that it is overwhelmingly Republican.

Alberta Cove’s residents are an unusually close-knit group; families from more than a half-dozen homes gather in the cul-de-sac every Friday night for beer and burgers. They watch out for one another’s homes and children, and several of the families vacation together.

‘To be like us’

From the outset, the judging families — the Stewarts, the Bellamys and Eric Daniels’ family — wanted their new neighbors to fit into their group — as one person said, “to be like us.”

The premise of the show and those catchphrases caught the attention of the National Fair Housing Alliance in Northwest Washington. The president, Shanna Smith, called ABC for information and was sent the first two episodes. She was troubled by what she saw.

Miss Smith expressed her concerns to ABC Television President Alex Wallau in conversations over several days. The group was pondering a lawsuit, claiming that the series worked against its efforts to eliminate discrimination in the housing market.

“The show gives people the impression that they have the right to select their neighbors based on race, national origin, sex and religion,” Miss Smith says. “We repeatedly told ABC the show would violate the law and that we had been talking to our lawyers.”

The group’s lawsuit would be against ABC, not the winning family, if the show is rescheduled.

Miss Smith remains concerned about that prospect. She says she is suspicious of ABC’s statement that it was canceling the show “at this time.”

“Our lawyers will be ready to take action if they proceed with the show,” she says.

In ads for the show, the neighbor judges made disparaging comments about several families vying for the house. However, it was Mr. Stewart’s remarks about the homosexual couple, John and Steve Wright, that prompted a reporter to call the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for comment.

GLAAD, which promotes “fair, accurate and inclusive portrayals in the media,” has a policy against commenting on programs that its officers have not seen, so media director Damon Romine called ABC and got the tapes.

“They told me it was going to be a show about the evolution from intolerance to acceptance and someone would win a house at the end,” Mr. Romine says. “But is it right that one group is pitted against another and not just homosexuals? We’re advocates for diversity, and this was much bigger than the gay issue.”

As more episodes became available, Mr. Romine was invited by ABC to see the entire series. (No other outsider has.) He says he is convinced that ABC did not intend to promote bigotry.

“They acknowledged the structural challenges and said they were looking at ways of addressing them,” he says. “We certainly did not ask them to remove it, and we were frankly surprised that they did. I’m still hopeful that the structural issues can be resolved so viewers can experience this remarkable journey.”

ABC stands behind the original intent of the show: to depict “the transformative process that takes place when people are forced to confront preconceived notions of what makes a good neighbor.” The problem, the network insisted in its cancellation statement, was the format.

“The fact that true change only happens over time made the episodic nature of this series challenging. And given the sensitivity of the subject matter in early episodes, we have decided not to air the series at this time.”

ABC would not allow executive producer Jay Blumenfield to talk about the show, but as criticism mounted before the cancellation, Mr. Blumenfield said Circle C was selected because it was an upscale community with a house for sale. The production had looked at other central Texas neighborhoods but had decided on Circle C after knocking on lots of doors. The residents’ candor cinched the deal.

“The people on that cul-de-sac were willing to be so honest about preconceptions that we all know are wrong,” Mr. Blumenfield said only days before ABC dropped the ax. “Those views are not as uncommon as we’d like to hope.”

Mr. Blumenfield said the neighbors were told that the contestants would be “diverse and unexpected. We told them we wanted to explore what it’s like to judge a book by its cover, and they agreed to explore their own prejudices.”

Trouble foreseen

Perhaps sensing trouble, Mr. Blumenfield said of the early criticism, “Maybe it hurts too much for America to look in the mirror.”

Bigger questions raised by “Welcome to the Neighborhood” are whether reality TV is equipped to delve deeply into complex social issues. “The show is vintage reality TV — based on a completely contrived situation,” says Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television. “None of those people would have been trying to buy a house in that neighborhood, just like those seven people wouldn’t have been in the ‘Real World’ house in Austin.”

Mr. Thompson says he sees value in the Circle C show’s purpose but wonders why ABC did not figure out a better way to present the “evolution” in Alberta Cove. He suggests playing the episodes backward, showing the enlightenment first and tracing back to earlier preconceptions.

Whatever ultimately happens to the show, the backlash clearly caught ABC by surprise.

“If you’re going to do a show with that premise, you shouldn’t be surprised if it sparks controversy,” Mr. Thompson says. “The fact that ABC didn’t see this coming is a big mystery. ”


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