January 21, 2006
Television Cul-de-Sac Mystery: Why Was Reality Show Killed?
By JACQUES STEINBERG
AUSTIN, Tex. - A year ago, Stephen Wright and his partner, John Wright, embarked on a sociology experiment that only a reality show producer could concoct: theirs was one of seven families competing to persuade the residents of a cul-de-sac here to award them a red-brick McMansion purchased on their behalf by the ABC television network.
The unscripted series, "Welcome to the Neighborhood," was heavily promoted and scheduled to appear in a summer time slot usually occupied by "Desperate Housewives." Stephen Wright, 51, who was already living in a nice house a few miles away with his partner and adopted son, said he participated primarily for one reason: to show tens of millions of prime-time viewers that a real gay family might, over the course of six episodes, charm a neighborhood whose residents overwhelmingly identified themselves as white, Christian and Republican.
As it turned out, the Wrights did win - beating families cast, at least partly, for being African-American, Hispanic, Korean, tattooed or even Wiccan - but outside of a few hundred neighbors (who attended private screenings last summer) and a handful of journalists, almost no one has been able to see them do so.
Ten days before the first episode was to be shown, ABC executives canceled "Welcome to the Neighborhood," saying that they were concerned that viewers who might have been appalled at some early statements made in the show - including homophobic barbs - might not hang in for the sixth episode, when several of those same neighbors pronounced themselves newly open-minded about gays and other groups.
ABC acted amid protests by the National Fair Housing Alliance, which had expressed concern about a competition in which race, religion and sexual orientation were discussed as factors in the awarding of a house. But two producers of the show, speaking publicly about the cancellation for the first time, say the network was confident it had the legal standing to give away a house as a game-show prize. One, Bill Kennedy, a co-executive producer who helped develop the series with his son, Eric, suggested an alternative explanation. He said that the protests might have been most significant as a diversion that allowed the Walt Disney Company, ABC's owner, to pre-empt a show that could have interfered with a much bigger enterprise: the courting of evangelical Christian audiences for "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Disney hoped that the film, widely viewed as a parable of the Resurrection, would be the first in a profitable movie franchise.
In the months and weeks before "Welcome to the Neighborhood" was to have its premiere, as Disney sought to build church support for "Narnia," four religious groups lifted longtime boycotts of the company that had been largely prompted by Disney's tolerance of periodic gatherings by gay tourists at its theme parks. Representatives for two of those groups now say that broadcasting "Neighborhood" could have complicated their support for "Narnia." One, the Southern Baptist Convention, with more than 16 million members, lifted the last of the boycotts against Disney on June 22, a week before ABC announced it was pulling the series.
When asked to respond to Mr. Kennedy's contention about "Narnia," Kevin Brockman, an ABC spokesman, said, "That's so ludicrous, it doesn't even merit a response." But Mr. Kennedy said he found ABC's stated reasons for canceling the series unconvincing. Although he acknowledged that he had "no smoking gun" to prove the link between "Narnia" and the fate of "Welcome to the Neighborhood," "I don't believe in coincidences," he said.
"Narnia," a joint venture with Walden Media, has gone on to earn almost $600 million since its release last month, on an investment of more than $150 million. "Neighborhood," by contrast, cost an estimated $10 million.
Now, nearly a year after production on "Neighborhood" concluded - and four months after the Wrights moved into the house - the couple, their new neighbors, Mr. Kennedy and another of the show's producers say they remain bewildered by the abrupt turn in the show's fortunes, including the statement by the network, which owns the rights to the series, that it has no plans either to broadcast it or allow it to be sold to another outlet.
The producers say that it is worth noting that a show that exists mainly to dispel people's tendencies to prejudge strangers was itself a victim of prejudgments. They also note that in a universe of failed reality-show relationships, this experiment has actually succeeded, yet only out of public view.
Since September, when the Wrights moved into their four-bedroom home in the Circle C Ranch development in southwest Austin, they have had standing Friday-night dinners with one neighborhood family (the Stewarts) and Sunday-night dinners with another (the Bellamys), whose twin teenage daughters are now their son's regular baby sitters.
Meanwhile, the neighbor who was the Wrights' earliest on-camera antagonist - Jim Stewart, 53, who is heard in an early episode saying, "I would not tolerate a homosexual couple moving into this neighborhood" - has confided to the producers that the series changed him far more than even they were aware.
No one involved in the show, Mr. Stewart said, knew he had a 25-year-old gay son. Only after participating in the series, Mr. Stewart said, was he able to broach his son's sexuality with him for the first time.
"I'd say to ABC, 'Start showing this right now,' " Mr. Stewart said in an interview at his oak kitchen table. "It has a message that needs to be heard by everyone." (Mr. Stewart first discussed his son publicly with The Austin American-Statesman.)
While other ABC shows have gay characters - including the new comedy "Crumbs" - "Neighborhood" features a real gay couple and their prospective neighbors in a continuing dialogue about homosexuality, including interpretations of the Bible.
In a recent interview, Richard Land, an official with the Southern Baptist Convention involved in the negotiations with Disney last year to end the group's boycott of the company, said he did not recall any mention of "Neighborhood." He added, however, that had the show been broadcast - particularly with an ending that showed Christians literally embracing their gay neighbors - it could have scuttled the Southern Baptists' support for "Narnia."
"I would have considered it a retrograde step," Mr. Land said of the network's plans to broadcast the reality series. "Aside from any moral considerations, it would have been a pretty stupid marketing move."
Paul McCusker, a vice president of Focus on the Family, which had supported the Southern Baptist boycott and reaches millions of evangelical listeners through the daily radio broadcasts of Dr. James Dobson, expressed similar views.
"It would have been a huge misstep for Disney to aggressively do things that would disenfranchise the very people they wanted to go see 'Narnia,' " he said.
Asked whether Disney's plans for "Narnia" had affected "Neighborhood," Mr. Brockman of ABC referred a reporter to comments made on July 26 by Stephen McPherson, the president of ABC Entertainment, to a gathering of television critics. At that time it was not widely known that a gay couple had won the competition. Instead, Mr. McPherson, a champion of the show until its sudden cancellation, was asked if he had been influenced by criticism by civil rights groups.
"If I stopped airing things just because advocacy groups had issues with it, we would run a test pattern," Mr. McPherson said. Rather, he said, he had begun to worry that some of the neighbors' most intolerant statements early on could confuse the audience's understanding of "the message you were trying to get across."
Hank Cohen, a former president of MGM Television Entertainment, a partner with ABC in "Neighborhood," said no one at the network had given him a direct answer as to what had transpired behind the scenes, and "the lack of any single coherent reason cited by them opens them up to all kinds of conjecture."
The full series, a copy of which was given to The New York Times by an advocate, is often raw, as contestants and judges speak openly about their preconceptions, only to observe in amazement as some of their ideas - though by no means all - melt away. Much of the give-and-take occurs in the series's version of the tribal council on "Survivor," as the three couples charged with giving away the house (bought by ABC for more than $300,000) meet to eliminate one family each episode.
Still, the neighbors' attitudes toward homosexuality constitute the dominant theme. That the tide may be shifting is telegraphed in an all-male scene in a hot tub, of all places, when one neighbor, John Bellamy, observes that Mr. Stewart appears to be softening his views toward gays. "I love you for that," Mr. Bellamy says, before cautioning, "Not in a weird kind of hot-tub love, with no chicks in the hot tub."
For Stephen Wright, who was recruited for the series through his church, which has a predominantly gay membership, the outcome has been bittersweet.
On the one hand, he has yet to achieve his goal of telling his family's story before a big audience. "We opened our souls and the life of our family, and we did it because we thought we could make a difference," he said.
But Mr. Wright said he took solace that through their participation in the series, he and his partner had had a positive impact on at least one relationship, that of Mr. Stewart and his son.
"We said at the outset that if we changed one person's heart or mind, it would be worth it," he said. "We have empirical evidence we did that."
"And," he added, "we won a house."