Viacom sent mixed signals Tuesday on the fate of its controversial reality-show project, "Amish in the City."
During conference calls with reporters marking the end of the February sweeps, CBS and UPN bigwig Leslie Moonves said that "Amish" was still in development, but "has not been pushed forward." An hour later, UPN Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff said the show was in the casting process, but didn't offer much more than that, even when pushed several times.
The show would focus on five Amish teenagers living in a house with five non-Amish young adults in a sort of "Real World" experience. It would capitalize on the religion's rite of rumspringa, which allows them to socialize without the supervision they've had growing up until they decide whether to commit to adulthood in the Amish community. The Amish live in 33 states, but most famously in and around Lancaster, Pa., where more than 20,000 reside. They live simply and don't participate in modern technology-- particularly television--and they avoid being photographed or filmed.
"Amish in the City," the show's working title, has drawn criticism from a number of quarters, and not just from experts on the Amish who are skeptical that even five Amish could be enlisted for the project. U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts, a Pennsylvania Congressman who represents the Lancaster Amish country, got 50 other lawmakers to sign a letter protesting the show that went to Viacom, which owns both CBS and UPN. Moonves' overall responsibility is for both networks.
"This series is not a documentary on how Amish teenagers struggle with their cultural and religious identity--it's a deliberate attempt to exploit the beliefs and practices of the Amish," Pitts said.
CBS and UPN received the letter last month.
"We have total respect for what the critics are saying and what the Congressmen are saying," Ostroff said. "We have every intention of treating the Amish beliefs and their heritage with the utmost respect and decency."
Ostroff declined to comment on specifics about the show.
"We are not involved in the day-to-day casting process. It's obviously taking place," she said. "It's like all the other shows that we work on-- it's a process."
The show had been slated for summer airing on UPN. Neither Moonves or Ostroff would comment on whether it would still air in the summer.
"We want to be very clear that we're hearing what everyone has to say about it," Ostroff said.
While the ratings for CBS have given Moonves much to smile about, the CBS chief has also had to weather several storms this season: The brouhaha that erupted over "The Reagans" miniseries, which was eventually yanked off the air and given to Viacom's pay cable channel Showtime, not to mention the Super Bowl halftime show.
Moonves acknowledged that whenever 51 lawmakers send a letter complaining about something, the network doesn't take it lightly. Yet he also expressed exasperation about the controversies that have dogged some of CBS programming since the "Hitler" miniseries.
"One of the things that bother us is that reviewers, Congressional people, are commenting about things that are still in the planning stages," Moonves said.