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"Hick Hunt" Riles Appalachian Advocates
By Scott Nicholson

"Come listen to a story ‘bout a man named Jed, poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed . . ."

When CBS launched plans in September for a new reality-based television series in which a rural mountain family would be transplanted into a Beverly Hills mansion, the initial outrage was limited to the quips of newspaper columnists. Now a more formal opposition is underway, as The Center for Rural Strategies launched a campaign against the "New Beverly Hillbillies."

The group’s efforts kicked off with a series of ads in three major newspapers, with more to follow. The center is asking people to contact CBS and voice their displeasure about cashing in on Appalachian stereotypes for the nation’s entertainment and amusement.

Chuck Watkins, director of the Appalachian Cultural Museum in Boone, NC, said, "Appalachian people are still subject to every snide comment there is. They wouldn’t do this with any other ethnic group in America. They wouldn’t even think about it."

Watkins objects to the idea that Beverly Hills is the desirable pinnacle of modern civilized life, pointing to the drug problems and crime as well as Hollywood’s renowned immoral environment. "They put Anna Nicole Smith on TV," Watkins said. "They could go into the deepest, darkest hollow in West Virginia in 1875 and not find anybody as crass and crude and outrageous as her."

"The brass at CBS clearly think it’s safe to make fun of and commercialize low-income rural folks," said Dee Davis, president of The Center for Rural Strategies, in a press statement. "We intend to lessen their comfort zone and make them re-think this premise."

The new show was inspired by The Beverly Hillbillies, a sitcom that ran for nine years and was once the nation’s most-watched show. According to various reports, the network has had a crew of casting agents conducting "hick hunts" in rural areas in Arkansas, West Virginia, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky in search of a multi-generational family of five or more including parents, children and grandparents. The chosen family will be relocated for at least a year to a mansion in Beverly Hills. The family will be given money to buy expensive cars and designer suits, to hire maids and personal assistants, and to dine at fine restaurants.

Davis said in his statement, "Viacom shareholders should take note. There are 56 million rural Americans or 20 percent of the nation’s population. Those of us who live in rural America are not fair game for CBS executives to contort and make sport of to line their pockets. This is a lesson in business ethics and humanity lost on the current crop of CBS executives."

At its website, the center advises people on how to contact CBS with their opinions. In comments published in newspaper editorials and columns immediately following the show’s announcement, the opinions ranged from anger to humor. The Atlanta Journal wrote, "It’s exploiting differences made on class and religion, to laugh at people and their misfortune and inexperience."

Another paper wrote, "How about a reality-TV series, ‘Real Hill Jerks,’ in which network executives are moved to a shack in the hill country of Texas where they work as maids for poor people?"

Watkins said occasionally visitors to the Appalachian Cultural Museum will ask to see some "real" Appalachian people, expecting to see the same stereotypes that adorned Mountain Dew bottles and L’il Abner comics. They are surprised to learn that there’s no single image of Appalachia, since it's comprised of some of the most complex and diverse socioeconomic and ethnic makeups of any region of the country. "Appalachian people are still everybody else’s fair game," Watkins noted.

CBS executives have defended the show as a "fish out of water" story that could point out the ironies of modern urban life as much as it makes fun of situations where a family is placed in a new set of experiences. Susan Keefe, an anthropologist and Appalachian Studies professor at Appalachian State University, said her colleagues had been talking about the controversy. "There’s been quite a bit of concern about it voiced in the region," Keefe said. "I think it does reflect the national stereotype of Appalachian people that’s certainly been around for 100 years. It carries little in the way of reality about what the region is today."

Mary C. Greene, an Appalachian musician and part-time folklorist, said that the idea for the show reveals the urban dweller’s continuing fascination with the Appalachians and rural life. "Poking fun of country people has been a pastime for a long time," Greene said. "Humor is a vehicle for trying to deal with things they’re uncomfortable with."

Greene, who stopped watching television five years ago, said that while every stereotype may contain a grain of truth, people will think the stereotype is representative of everyone in the region. She proposes an alternate show: get a city family and put them in the country, give them tools and seeds and livestock, then ask the family to be self-supporting. "And the winner lives," Greene said.

Boone resident Steve Behr has another proposal: "I'd like to drop some CBS executives down a coal mine shaft in West Virginia and make them work for a living. That would be worth watching."

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Submit your idea for a reality TV show starring CBS executives here and they'll be posted if they're not obscene or libelous:

>I was just writing to let you know I read your "Beverly Hillbillies" article. I am SO sick of country stereotypes! My entire life, I have been subjected to this CRAP on TV and in movies. Everyone thinks because I live in Alabama, I must have a dip in my mouth and be married to my sister (I'll have them know, I divorced my sister two years ago--I didn't get along with my mother-in-law--ha ha ha). Anyway, I understand where you're coming from. Maybe we can show them with our writing...just as soon as I get my pickup down from the blocks in my yard.-- Brian Roberts Douglas, ALABAMA!!!!!

>How long do you think these scabs would last if they were exposed by Hank Williams Jr., Charlie Daniels or Alan Jackson. Get the pens out boys.

(Originally published in the Watauga Democrat. Contact for reprint permission)

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