June 20, 2005 -- A new reality series in which three white, self-described "Christian" families get to pick their new neighbors from among a group of minority families is already drawing fire.
And it hasn't even aired yet.
The show is called "Welcome to the Neighborhood" and it's coming to ABC July 10.
"I will not tolerate a homosexual couple coming into this neighborhood," one of the neighbors, Jim Stewart, says on the show about one of the candidate families — a gay couple with an adopted baby.
"I want a family similar to what we are," asserts another neighbor, John Bellamy, in a statement that would seem to dismiss at least six out of the seven candidate families.
The diverse group includes African-American, Caucasian, Korean, Latino and gay families, plus one family in which husband and wife are heavily tattooed, and another in which mom and dad are devoted to the practice of Wicca, sometimes known as witchcraft or paganism.
The show's first two episodes are filled with statements such as those above.
Along with the show's premise, in which neighbors get to choose who will move into a vacant house on their cul-de-sac, the attitude reflected in the judging families' statements is raising hackles among fair-housing and gay anti-defamation activists — sometimes sight-unseen.
"The show perpetuates the problems of housing discrimination, segregation and racism in America, and it undermines the fair-housing rights of a person's ability to go buy a house without any approval or judgment from a neighbor," says Shanna Smith, president of the Washington-based National Fair Housing Alliance. She hasn't seen the show yet, but is basing her conclusions mainly on reading ABC's press materials promoting the show. She is already talking about launching an advertiser boycott.
Meanwhile, from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation comes this reaction: "Watching three privileged couples vote to get rid of disenfranchised families they don't like is really disturbing," says Damon Romine, Los Angeles-based entertainment media director for GLAAD.
Romine watched the first two episodes of the show last week.
"Welcome to the Neighborhood" was filmed over a four-week period last winter in a suburban housing development in Austin, Texas.
The winning family gets a four-bedroom, three-bath home, plus furnishings, upgrades and two years' worth of property taxes paid for them — a prize worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $900,000, estimates two of the show's executive producers, Jay Blumenfield and Tony Marsh.
In an interview last week, they said the show does not violate fair-housing laws, according to what they were told by ABC's lawyers.
"This isn't like [the judging families] were renting an apartment to somebody or actually the sellers of a home. This is a prize, so in that realm, those discrimination laws and all that stuff are not part of this process," Marsh said.
They're aware of their show's potential for controversy, but they're also hopeful that some people's outrage over the show will soften as the series plays itself out and attitudes among the judging families evolve and change.
"I think this was an incredibly ambitious project, and I respect ABC for giving us a chance to be honest and to show what people really say behind closed doors," said Marsh.