Georgia politician rips network's run at rustic reality

The battle over “The Real Life Beverly Hillbillies” heated up Tuesday, with U.S. Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) launching a verbal broadside against CBS CEO Leslie Moonves over the Eye’s decision to develop the unscripted skein.

“What CBS and … Moonves propose to do with this cracker comedy is bigotry, pure and simple — bigotry for big bucks,” Miller said in a speech from the Senate floor, even as U.S. prepare for a possible attack on Iraq. “They know that the only minority left in this country that you can make fun of and demean and humiliate … are hillbillies in particular and rural people in general.”

In an attempt to be as respectful as possible to the rural viewers who’ve traditionally been among the Eye’s most loyal viewers, CBS has tried to mollify critics of the “Hillbillies” concept, with Moonves taking a meeting with a Southern-based group that’s mounted a major lobbying campaign against the possible show. Eye senior VP of communications Chris Ender, however, dismissed Miller’s complaints.

“It’s bizarre and unfortunate that some are forming conclusions about a project before it has been cast or a frame of film has been shot,” he said. “At a time when national security and global conflict are weighing heavily on everybody’s mind, it seems odd to be attacking a TV reality show that doesn’t even exist yet.”

While politicos have never been shy of attacking Hollywood over everything from violence to onscreen smoking, Miller’s attacks took on an unusually personal tone, with the senator singling out Moonves for scorn.

“CBS, the once proud and honorable broadcasting company … it seems has become just another money grubber,” Miller said, describing Moonves as “a man who obviously believes that network television is an ethics-free zone and it is acceptable for big profits to always come ahead of good taste.”

Miller did not mention the slew of other reality shows already on the air or in the planning stages that poke fun at individuals or groups.

ABC’s “Are You Hot?” features judges mocking contestants over physical flaws, while Simon Cowell told an “American Idol” contestant last week that she needs to lose weight. Fox’s just-concluded monster hit “Joe Millionaire” featured numerous scenes in which contestants came off as less than sophisticated, while the net is planning a take on “Green Acres” (dubbed “The Simple Life”) that will force a pair of rich socialites to get down-and-dirty.

What’s more, at least one potential candidate for the series said she’s been treated “with nothing but respect” by CBS during the audition process for “Hillbillies.”

“We tried out for it an just loved the way we were treated,” said Pamela Cline of southern West Virginia. “We didn’t think anyone was going to make fun of us, and we’re just angry that somebody would try to keep us off TV. Who are they to say we can’t be on TV.”

CBS began developing “Hillbillies” last summer after inking a deal with exec producers Gary Auerbach, Dub Cornett and James Jones (Daily Variety, Aug. 28, 2002.) Producers haven’t yet finalized casting on the project, though reality TV insiders believe the Eye has narrowed down its choices to two or three potential families.

As with most reality shows, the Eye won’t make a final decision on whether to produce “Hillbillies” until it settles on a cast for the project.

CBS execs have been sensitive about potential criticism of the show from the start, with Eye alternative topper Ghen Maynard telling Daily Variety last summer the net was not trying to humiliate participants.

“It’s a great fish-out-of-water story,” he said in August. “A lot of it will be funny, but a lot of it will be real. We want to find a family that’s different from what most people know but still relatable, a family that loves each other a lot.”

Maynard also said the show, despite its humorous tone, would show “respect” for the family.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more