Originally created 07/04/05

ABC finds neighborhood that isn't too friendly



NEW YORK - ABC's extraordinary cancellation of "Welcome to the Neighborhood" less than two weeks before its premiere proves that reality television can only handle so much reality.

With a threatened lawsuit and accusations the network was tone deaf to bigotry, ABC may have traded a major headache for the temporary embarrassment of throwing out a series that was already finished.

But executives must surely be hearing uncomfortable questions about how ABC got so close to the brink in the first place.

The six-episode summer series, which was to debut July 10, was heavily promoted and given the plum "Desperate Housewives" time slot. ABC saw it as the potential hit follow-up to "Dancing With the Stars."

"Welcome to the Neighborhood" followed three families in a comfortable cul-de-sac near Austin, Texas, given the chance to choose who moves in when a neighbor moves out of a 3,300-square-foot home on their block. Each family is white, conservative and initially interested in neighbors like them.

Instead, they have a rainbow coalition of choices: a black family; a Hispanic family; an Asian family; two gay white men who've adopted a black boy; a couple covered in tattoos and piercings; a couple who met at the woman's initiation as a witch; and a white family where mom is a stripper.

After the usual reality show contrivances - voting a family out each week after a competition to give one family immunity - the winning family gets the house.

The idea is to see preconceptions, even prejudices, break down as the white homeowners get to know the competitors as people instead of stereotypes.

But you can't show a transformation without illustrating what people are transforming from.

"Why should people of color and others... be humiliated and degraded to teach white people not to be bigots?" said Shanna Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance. "That's not good for race relations in America."

Within the first two episodes, one man made a crack about the number of children piling out of the Hispanic family's car. The citizenry of the business-owning Asian family was questioned and displays of affection between the gay men were met with disgust.

Anger about the series even united the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (which found it "really disturbing" to watch privileged couples vote out families they don't like) with the Family Research Council (which worried that conservative Christians would appear like overly judgmental buffoons).

Smith said it was illegal for homeowners to pick and choose neighbors. Her group was readying a lawsuit, saying the series frustrated all their efforts to see that people are not discriminated against in seeking housing.

The protests clearly blind-sided ABC.

"I didn't think that people would be this nervous," Andrea Wong, head of alternative programming at ABC, said before Wednesday's decision to ditch the show. "Because I really think it's such a positive show and such a good thing to put on TV and cause viewers to look at themselves, I'm surprised by the negative reaction to it."

ABC's lawyers gave "Welcome to the Neighborhood" the go-ahead, and it apparently didn't disturb Wong when the family that shared her Asian-American descent was the first to be knocked out.

Wong was not giving interviews after the cancellation. Series producers Jay Blumenfield and Tony Marsh also weren't talking.

Smith, who had seen tapes of the first two episodes, was disturbed at a lack of balance. Competing families couldn't address biases because remarks weren't made in their presence; besides, they were on their best behavior to win a house they could otherwise not afford.

ABC said last week that "given the sensitivity of the subject matter in early episodes we have decided not to air the series at this time."

"You only sort of get half the story in watching the first two episodes," Blumenfield said before the cancellation. "You see the harshness, the entrenched points of view. These things kind of melt away as the humanity comes out. It was astonishing to watch and I think everyone felt very positive at the end."

The progression was telegraphed by the tattooed Sheets family, the most instantly reviled by the homeowners. Yet the Sheets quickly bonded with the neighbors when they realize they're all Republicans, and one couple came to see them as versions of themselves a decade earlier.

In talks with network President Alex Wallau, Smith said she was convinced ABC meant nothing malicious in preparing the show, and that ABC was unfamiliar with housing law.

"We're still concerned it's not gone forever," she said, "and if there are any other attempts to air it, we are prepared to take legal action to stop it."

Since producers clammed up after ABC's abrupt decision, Marsh wasn't available to address the irony of his words from just a week earlier.

"One of the horrible things that is happening right now in this country is that people are so afraid of a healthy debate," he said. "Somehow if you put out a strong point of view you're either painting someone improperly or you're offending the people who might oppose that view. We don't believe that preconceptions and prejudices are something to hide. They're something explore and hopefully get over."

The only good news for ABC is that for viewers, this is a tree falling in a very distant forest. Since the public won't see it, it will be hard for the public to get worked up.

There's also good news for one of the eight competing families: the winner will still get the house, even if their moment of joy has been censored. To keep the secret, the family had not been allowed to move in until after the series was supposed to conclude in late August.

An ABC spokeswoman declined to say who won.