BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. In recent months, producers of an upcoming CBS series have been scouring West Virginia, Arkansas and four other rural states looking for: "Rubes." One lucky family will be uprooted from its home and transplanted to a Southern California mansion to have their every hilariously unsophisticated move and utterance videotaped for the show called The Real Beverly Hillbillies -- a cross between the classic sitcom and MTV's Real World. Putting exhibitionists in degrading situations for the voyeuristic pleasure of the masses is nothing new -- think of Fear Factor for example. But an organization called The Center for Rural Strategies is incensed about this one. Dee Davis is president of the Kentucky-based organization. Mr. Davis, welcome to OTM!
DEE DAVIS: I'm glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: The network ignored your earlier protests, but now you've placed ads in major newspapers condemning CBS. Any reaction lately?
DEE DAVIS: We haven't heard from 'em, and-- we didn't really expect to hear from 'em either. I-- we just thought that we would let them hear from us for a while.
BOB GARFIELD:The network says that -- and I'll -- we'll just play devil's advocate here for a moment -that the fish out of water scenario is time-honored in television and if done properly, with respect for the people involved, can be very amusing without being mean-spirited. Do you buy that?
DEE DAVIS: They're referring oftentimes to fictional television shows like the old Beverly Hillbillies where you had actors pretending to be characters or buffoons and they went home every day to their home in Bel-Air and everybody was safe. This is something different. This is transporting a rural family and then laughing at 'em because they're poor!
BOB GARFIELD:CBS says this is all in good fun. Do you believe that at least in its genesis it wasn't really just all good, clean, wholesome fun?
DEE DAVIS: Have you ever seen this videotape called Dancing Outlaw? This buck-dancing, glue-sniffing hillbilly who dances on a picnic table and dresses as an Elvis impersonator. Well the guy who made that, Jacob Young, is the guy who they've signed on to be the director here. CBS at first, it was all about "hick hunts" and how funny it's going to be, but when people started to protest, they shut up, they shut down their hotline looking for nominations for families, and they've let the production company take all the heat. But I think that their intent's pretty clear.
BOB GARFIELD:With other reality shows like Big Brother and The Bachelor and Joe Millionaire and Fear Factor that in one way or another put the participants in degrading situations -- if you're going to be outraged, isn't it pretty much kind of like well, take a number? Is The Real Beverly Hillbillies likely to be any worse than the other reality fare that's already on television?
DEE DAVIS: I suppose no one should hold out a lot of hope for television becoming uplifting. All [LAUGHS] we're saying is that there are some standards. You know, at one time CBS was the Tiffany network -- they were the gold standard for family entertainment and news broadcasting. Where are those standards now? It's true that rural people may not be living as well as their metropolitan counterparts, but that gives CBS no license to laugh at 'em! And that's all we're saying. This is a step too far. That's all. We want CBS to come to their senses, you know?
BOB GARFIELD: All right, I have two more questions for you.
DEE DAVIS: Okay.
BOB GARFIELD: The first one is: where were you when Jerry Springer was in his heyday and we really needed you?
DEE DAVIS: [LAUGHS] Well-- [LAUGHS] you know I'm not as familiar with Jerry Springer as I probably should be.
BOB GARFIELD:Well just to refresh your memory, he seemed to go into the-- you know to the D counties and find the fattest, dumbest, dyed-hair-iest morons that he could locate and have them bear their perversities for a live studio audience.
DEE DAVIS: Well I think sensitivity's changed, and I think that's not such a bad thing. As rural people, we can laugh at ourselves and we can take a punch. I guess the question is, why do we have to take so many of 'em? You know, there was a time when different things were "funny." Just a hundred years ago - 1906 - the Bronx Zoo put an African tribesman in a cage with a parrot and an orangutan and had crowds file by to see him every day! African-American ministers in New York City protested to the mayor; the mayor wouldn't do anything. The brass at the Bronx Zoo wouldn't do anything. But at some point you've got to say hey, wait -- this is wrong. You've got to stop.
BOB GARFIELD: Because in the end, fundamentally, it's West Virginians in the Bronx Zoo.
DEE DAVIS: Because in the end, making fun of people because they're poor is not American, is not appropriate, is not ethical!
BOB GARFIELD: And now that final question I promised you: when the original Beverly Hillbillies was on TV, did you laugh?
DEE DAVIS:Yeah! When I was a kid, I watched it. I, I was growing up in Hazard, Kentucky. It was about I guess as hillbilly as anyplace in the world according to CBS. You know? Maybe it hurt a little bit that a whole family is portrayed as being illiterate. But-- you know, we can roll with the punches. I don't think any of us are so precious we can't afford to laugh at ourselves.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Thank you very much.
DEE DAVIS: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Dee Davis is president of The Center for Rural Strategies based in Whitesburg, Kentucky. [MUSIC]