Amish Show Goes Amiss

Last year, it was hillbillies. This year, it's the Amish. And once again, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves and entertainment giant Viacom are right in the middle of it.

UPN plans to air a reality TV show this summer tentatively titled "Amish in the City." Already a ripoff of another show's name -- "Sex in the City" -- the show plans to put five Amish youth, away from home for the first time, in the same house with five "mainstream American" youth.

The show would air on UPN -- the United Paramount Network -- this summer, building on the popularity of UPN's other reality offering, "America's Next Top Model." "Top Model" pits young women against each other in races to apply "smoky" eye makeup and other challenging stunts.

In his role at CBS, Moonves also oversees programming at UPN. Viacom, which reported $24.6 billion in revenues in 2002, owns both CBS and UPN. Moonves earned the ire of rural America last year when CBS moved forward with plans to produce a reality version of TV's "Beverly Hillbillies."

The Center for Rural Strategies led a campaign that included major newspaper ads condemning CBS. The campaign was supported by more than 50 organizations (including Tolerance.org), 44 members of Congress and numerous national labor unions representing more than 4.5 million American workers -- all united against the "Hillbillies" idea. That campaign forced "Hillbillies" plans into inactivity at CBS.

One would think Moonves would have learned a lesson from the "Hillbillies" backlash. One would be wrong. At a recent press conference where the "Amish in the City" program was discussed, Moonves claimed the show "is not intended to be insulting to the Amish." He described the entertainment value of the program as watching Amish teens "freaked out by what they see" in the world outside their rural homes.

When asked why TV executives would want to expose a religious group to ridicule and risk changing the course of Amish youths' lives, Moonves delivered a punchline instead of an answer: "Well, we couldn't do 'The Beverly Hillbillies.'" Making the joke even more offensive, the CBS executive added that the Amish "don't have quite as good a lobbying effort" as the anti-"Hillbillies" group did.

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, coordinated last year's campaign and has weighed in on the latest flap as well, calling it "a new swipe at rural America."

"This time the executives are not just making fun of rural people for being poor; they are placing the religious faith and values of rural people in a fish bowl for comic effect," Davis said. "And if Viacom … succeeds in leading a few people into temptation and away from home and faith, well, I guess that's just show business."

According to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country Welcome Center, members of the Amish faith have settled in 22 states and Ontario, Canada. The largest and oldest settlement -- about 18,000 people -- is in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The Amish eschew modern technology -- cars, telephones, television -- though exact rules vary from one church district to another. Generally speaking, they live simply and separately from mainstream America.

Creators of the planed UPN show claim to be modeling it after the real-life Amish ritual of "rumspringa," a Pennsylvania Dutch word that translates to "running around." But what the show plans to do -- present cloistered Amish youth with real-world temptations while under the constant glare of TV cameras -- has little to do with the actual rite of "rumspringa," a time when older teenagers explore the larger world more freely as they decide whether to be baptized into the Amish faith.

These teens rarely actually leave home during "rumspringa" -- and certainly not to a big city to live with other, non-Amish teens. An estimated 90 percent of teens choose baptism, usually between the ages of 18 and 22. Then they formally join the church as adults, vowing to maintain its rules.

Those who are protesting UPN's planned show want to expose it for what they see it is: A crass ratings-grab by television executives who don't mind mocking and stereotyping whole classes of people for laughs and profit.

Brian Willoughby is the Senior Writer and Editor at Tolerance.org

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