When CBS President Les Moonves began looking for someone to make the trip from the rural South to upscale Los Angeles for a reality-based remake of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” he wasn’t expecting Dee Davis to show up.
Davis runs the Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies, a grass-roots advocacy group that has created a public relations headache for CBS while raising questions about the lengths to which the networks will go in luring viewers to their so-called reality shows.
Of all the unscripted programs that now dominate prime-time TV -- from “Joe Millionaire” to “Fear Factor” to “Survivor” -- none has generated more real-life controversy than CBS’ efforts to find a rural family to move into a mansion so that its day-to-day encounters with wealth can be chronicled.
“The Real Beverly Hillbillies” has become a lightning rod in the South, particularly among those living in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky, where the network has focused its search. Picketers have marched outside one CBS affiliate station, and high school students have waged a letter-writing campaign. People there say they are tired of being depicted as poor and uneducated.
Today, with the future of the series increasingly clouded, Dee Davis and his group’s lawyer are scheduled to get an audience with Moonves. “They requested this meeting, and out of courtesy and respect, we said that we’d like to hear what they had to say,” CBS spokesman Chris Ender said.
Davis hopes to persuade one of television’s most powerful executives to pull the plug on a show he says would insult many of CBS’ loyal viewers.
“These ‘real people’ that they’re talking about would be chosen because they’re poor, rural, uneducated and haven’t traveled far from home,” Davis said. “Then the network would put them in this televised fishbowl for America’s entertainment.”
So far, CBS has refused to completely back away from “The Real Beverly Hillbillies.” But there are signs the South may be winning this war. At least three hotlines that CBS set up for potential families to call have been disconnected.
“We don’t know what the future is of the show,” Moonves told television writers last month, insisting that the network did not intend to offend anyone with the “fish-out-of- water show.”
Not since 1979 has controversy surrounding a program stopped it in its tracks before airing, according to Tim Brooks, a TV historian and co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows.”
Back then, CBS buckled when the Congressional Black Caucus complained about what it called the demeaning characterization of an African American football player elected to Congress in the show “Mr. Dugan.” The program starred Cleavon Little and was a spinoff of the popular comedy “Maude.”
Opponents of CBS’ “The Real Beverly Hillbillies” say the show is particularly offensive because it involves real people, not actors. “ ‘Reality’ TV is pretty much humiliation TV,” said Davis, who is waging his first protest against a network. “We felt that this was crossing a line that didn’t need to be crossed.”
When the nonprofit center, based in Whitesburg, Ky., opened 18 months ago, Davis figured the group would be working behind the scenes on sewage and water quality issues -- not dueling with moguls or conglomerates such as Viacom Inc., which owns CBS.
And his group has done so in a very public way, spending $100,000 on full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Chicago Tribune and USA Today. The ads were paid for by private donors and banks, Davis said.
The spread featured Moonves’ photo and a quote from a CBS executive, one the network wishes had never been uttered: “Imagine the episode where they have to interview maids.”
The ads also took Moonves to task, saying: “Les Moonves may fly over rural America in his corporate jet but that doesn’t give him the right to look down on the hard-working people who live there.”
Davis’ campaign took root last fall when CBS began looking for potential families throughout the South. In Kentucky, the network began circulating fliers in the state’s poorest counties, offering a "$1,000 REWARD” for tips leading to suitable subjects. The flier also offered as much as $500,000 to a multi-generational family willing to move into a Beverly Hills mansion for one year: “Parents in their 40s with children ages 17 to 25. Grandparents and other kin invited.”
Critics quickly labeled the search “a hick hunt.”
At Knott County Central High in eastern Kentucky, the outrage that led to the letter-writing campaign began brewing in teacher Dustin Combs’ advanced English class. Combs said his students could come up with only one good reason to air the show: “A family below the poverty line would receive a lot of money -- but it was at the expense of a whole culture, a whole region and one family’s dignity,” Combs said. “I’m sure CBS’ intent was not to enrage a whole region, but that’s what has happened.”
The Center for Rural Strategies took up the cause and used its Internet address to mobilize. Overnight, its Web site went from 50 hits a day to more than 30,000. “We weren’t geared up for this kind of reaction,” Davis said.
The controversy swept outside Kentucky too. When CBS announced that the project was on hold while it searched for the “right” family, Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) fired off a letter to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Seems they are having a hard time finding the family they had in mind: toothless illiterates with hookworms and an old man who has impregnated his barefoot, teenage daughter.”
Morris Dees, chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the proposed show illustrated a form of classism. It’s still acceptable in some quarters to make fun of poor white Southerners, he said.
“If they were to take a poor, uneducated black family from rural Mississippi or rural Alabama, that had never left the area, and moved them to Beverly Hills, that would serve the same CBS purpose of getting people to laugh at them, but I don’t think they’d do that,” Dees said. “The NAACP would go through the roof.”
The original Beverly Hillbillies hailed from the Ozarks and became one of the most popular families in television history. The show was first telecast in 1962 and aired for nine seasons.
Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said he understood why critics are opposed to a remake, but added: “People forget who the good guys were in the original ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ -- it was the Clampetts.”
Thompson added that he is troubled by the campaign to kill the show before a single frame of film has been shot. He said a healthy dose of “condescension and patronization” is behind “this feeling that we need to protect people from Appalachia.” He said the proposed show is no different from such reality hits as ABC’s “The Bachelor” or Fox’s “Joe Millionaire.”
If a family wants to willingly hold itself up to scrutiny, so be it, he said. “They have as much right to go on a ‘reality’ show as some snotty teenagers on MTV’s ‘Real World.’ ”