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Reality-TV 'Beverly Hillbillies' draws fire

Monday, January 20, 2003

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dee Davis grew up laughing at "The Beverly Hillbillies," but he isn't smiling at "The Real Beverly Hillbillies," the latest idea for a reality TV show that tweaks the '60s sitcom.

"It's a hick hunt," Davis says about CBS scouts scouring West Virginia and other rural states looking for real-life Jethros and Grannies so they can be plunked down into the land of swimming pools and movie stars.

Davis, who did graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh years before becoming president of the Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies, was so offended by the idea of the show that he organized a massive protest.

And it may be working.

Ads the center ran in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other papers said that CBS president Leslie Moonves "may fly over rural America on his corporate jet, but that does not give him the right to look down on the real hard-working people who live there."

Thousands of people enlisted by the center have protested by sending e-mails to the network. The group's Web site, www.ruralstrategies.org, has received 30,000 hits in just a matter of weeks.

Thanks to the backlash, a real-life Clampett family may not be transported from the back woods to a ritzy California mansion after all.

At the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Hollywood last week, Moonves said, "There is no start date. We have not even located a family. It is not in any way, shape or form or intent to demean anybody. It's a fish-out-of-water show. Oftentimes when you're dealing with reality, ideas come from all over the place, and sometimes you're pushing the envelope, and sometimes it may appear you've gone too far. The idea of the show was to question social mores. If you remember, in the original 'Beverly Hillbillies' the biggest buffoon was the rich guy who lived next door, Mr. Drysdale."

Moonves said he didn't know the future of the show, though there is talk in the TV world that it might not see the light of day. Phone numbers for prospective contestants to call have been disconnected since word of the series emerged last fall.

Davis believes CBS may wait for the criticism to subside and then launch the show anyway. Nevertheless, he said, the campaign has worked in that network officials are "backpedaling." He said the center will keep applying pressure to kill off the show.

Davis, 51, grew up in coal country in Hazard, Ky. He loves the country but liked living in Pittsburgh from 1976 to 1978, when he grew tomatoes in an alleyway in Bloomfield and took graduate courses in English and taught composition. He said he never received his master's degree because he took a job instead of finishing his dissertation. He went on to make documentary films about rural life.

He said Pennsylvania's rural population of 3.7 million is the largest of any state in the nation.

On most days, Davis and the staff at the center immerse themselves in non-sexy rural issues like farm bills and rural development funds. But when he saw posters in Kentucky offering a poor family $100,000 to become the real Beverly Hillbillies, he jumped in. He's been working day and night, doing interviews, writing ads and defending rural people from the unfair stereotype of uneducated yokels who have never seen indoor plumbing.

"It's the last group it's fine to laugh at," he said. "It's not that we can't take a joke, but do we have to take so many jokes?"

Davis said the original '60s sitcom was not offensive because "it was comedy. It was actors who could go back to their places in Bel Air. I didn't think it was real in the episode when Jethro turned Granny into a chimp. We suspend belief when it's fiction. But this goes beyond that. It's taking real people and humiliating them. It's humiliation TV."

Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at crouvalis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1572.

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen also contributed to this report.

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