Controversy sinks ABC skein

In a move to head off a potential controversy, ABC has decided to shelve reality skein “Welcome to the Neighborhood” — less than two weeks before the show was scheduled to premiere.

Among many in the TV production community, Alphabet’s move immediately invited comparisons to CBS’ decision to shelve “The Reagans” after conservative groups denounced the controversial miniseries sight unseen.

It also demonstrated once again the challenges facing broadcasters in today’s politically charged environment, in which even an off-handed joke about a politician can put a show like “Law & Order” on the defensive.

“Neighborhood” — from MGM Television, New Screen Concepts and the Jay and Tony Show Prods. — seeks to discover whether people from different social classes and ethnic groups can be accepted by a white, upper-middle class Texas community.

Using a competition format, six families — including a pagan duo, a gay family and a Korean clan — try to win a fully furnished house in Austin by winning over the current residents of the cul-de-sac.

While “Neighborhood” exposes the apparent prejudices of the community, it also makes it clear from the start that all involved end up learning “life lessons” by the end of the series, debunking a slew of stereotypes in the process.

But before seeing the entire series, several fair housing groups had made it clear they were opposed to the show, with some claiming it may violate federal fair housing laws. A few media outlets had picked up on the controversy, but as late as Tuesday, ABC seemed to be standing fully behind the show.

All that changed Wednesday.

Show is out

Late in the afternoon, Alphabet confirmed it was taking the show off its schedule, without laying out a timetable for its return. Skein was supposed to bow Sunday, July 10 — in the primo 9 p.m. timeslot normally occupied by “Desperate Housewives” — with a special original summer episode of megahit “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” serving as a lead-in.

“Our intention with ‘Welcome to the Neighborhood’ was to show the transformative process that takes place when people are forced to confront preconceived notions of what makes a good neighbor, and we believe the series delivers exactly that,” the network’s statement read. “However, the fact that true change only happens over time made the episodic nature of this series challenging, and given the sensitivity of the subject matter in early episodes, we have decided not to air the series at this time.”

Insiders said the Alphabet feared viewers who watched only the first episode might get the idea that the series was encouraging prejudice. It’s also possible Disney-owned ABC is also protecting itself from a potential PR or legal backlash.

Like CBS with “The Reagans,” ABC might not want to provoke the wrath of myriad special interest groups, especially at a time when the net is riding high with viewers and is cultivating a big-tent brand.

Pressure from groups

Several watchdog groups, including the National Fair Housing Alliance, pressed ABC to pull the show. Right-wing groups like the Family Research Council had also fretted that conservatives could come off looking biased.

NFHA prexy-chief exec Shanna Smith, who met with ABC’s Alex Wallau last Friday, said the show violated federal, state and local fair housing laws.

“I think ABC’s intent was to try and depict bigotry and tolerance and that people can transform — but they did that at the expense of people of color, humiliating them to show that white people can change,” she said. “Their lawyers pressed that the show did not violate the law … but they should have known that there were serious problems.”

Smith said that Wallau “couldn’t make any promises” but that “my sense from him was that ABC is never going to air this show.”

Other industry insiders believe ABC was unfazed by the fair housing protesters and that the show had been fully vetted by its lawyers, who believed the contest was completely legit. What’s more, the net is said to be exploring the idea of airing a condensed version of the show, so that the positive ending airs soon after the “edgier” early episodes — though it’s also very possible “Neighborhood” could be gone for good.

Should the show end up on ABC — or elsewhere — Smith said her org will likely find a white family in the area and file suit on their behalf under the fair housing act, arguing that the neighborhood had been stigmatized as a haven only for white, Christian Republicans — and that the show may discourage people of color from moving in.

“If any of them found it offensive, federal law gives them standing to sue,” said Smith, who watched the first two episodes of “Welcome to the Neighborhood” after being alerted to the show by an ABC affiliate in Michigan. “Their lawyers pressed that the show did not violate the law, but our advice is to let it die … We’re quite pleased we didn’t have to resort to legal action to get this done.”

Mixed responses

A rep for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation said the org had a mixed reaction to the preemption, approving of the final message but concerned over the path the show takes to get there.

“The producers‘ stated intentions for the show are admirable,” spokesman Damon Romine said. “But an effort to promote tolerance that requires the rejection of five families in order to transform the attitudes of the homeowners seems unnecessarily cruel and insensitive, given the circumstances families like these encounter in real life.”

In the case of “The Reagans,” CBS ultimately gave the two-part movie to sister cable net Showtime.

ABC wasn’t talking about the long-term fate of “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” nor were the show’s exec producers, Rob Lee, Chuck Bangert, Lou Gorfain, Jay Blumenfield and Tony Marsh.

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