We’re thinking of everyone from Gomer Pyle of The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. to Jethro Bodine of The Beverly Hillbillies and from Hank Kimball of Green Acres to pretty much the entire cast of Hee Haw.
The networks, it seemed, preferred to play their buffoons with a Southern twang.
By the early 1970s, the parade of Southern simpletons came to a halt when network execs decided these shows were out of touch with the viewers they most wished to attract. As one actor noted, 1971 was “the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it.”
Oh, the “Rural Purge,” as it was called, didn’t completely destroy the Southern dimwit as a stock character. There were more like “Jethro” and “Gomer” and virtually none like “Atticus Finch.”
Today, with reality programming all the rage, cable channels have picked up where TV network execs of the 1960s left off.
It’s known as “hicksploitation” reality TV in some corners.
TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo celebrates the dysfunctional comings and goings of a family in McIntyre, Ga. A Forbes article put it plainly, noting the network aimed to portray the “family as a horde of lice-picking, lard-eating, nose-thumbing hooligans south of the Mason–Dixon line.”
At the start of this year MTV debuted Buckwild. The reality program chronicled the exploits of a group of teens in rural West Virginia. In a leaked memo, MTV execs were said to be looking for “a show set in the [S]outh with loud, unpolished, young kids.” The network got its wish with Buckwild. Let’s just say no one on the program spent a lot of screen-time studying for the SAT.
“This show plays to ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia,” U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in a letter to MTV. “You preyed on young people, coaxed them into displaying shameful behavior — and now you are profiting from it. That is just wrong.”
Buckwild was cancelled after one of its young stars died in an automobile accident in late March.
And on it goes, including Animal Planet’s Hillbilly Handfishing, Discovery’s Moonshiners, CMT’s My Big Redneck Wedding, History’s Swamp People and many more.
“These shows are not painting people in a derogatory way, because they’re affectionate,” Marjorie Kaplan, president and general manager of Animal Planet, which airs Hillbilly Handfishing, told The Washington Post last year. “I think some people see themselves in the show, but for others it’s reflective of an iconic way of life.”
Let’s get a few things clear. Reality TV shows aren’t pure documentaries. The film crews don’t just set up the cameras and walk away. Most are scripted and scenes are often filmed over several takes, according to a former reality show producer who spoke with the NPR program On the Media last year.
Yet, the characters shown on these Southern-based reality programs are undoubtedly based on real personalities. Granted, their extremes are heightened by the presence of a TV camera and a film crew egging them on.
My theory is that networks ignore other Southerners, ones whose manners, education, way of speaking, etc., aren’t so easily ridiculed or mocked.
Where is the reality show about savvy small-town shop owners in Calhoun County surviving amid cutthroat competition from big-box corporate retailers?
Where is the show about Auburn’s Rural Studio, the housing and community-building program dedicated to changing lives in rural Hale County?
Or, why not a program featuring the many volunteers working to reform Alabama’s state Constitution?
Why not? Because these programs wouldn’t provide fodder for one of the last types it’s acceptable to make sport of on television, the Southerner.
“Every community has aberrant people, easy-to-exploit exceptions for reality television producers looking to put reckless behavior on display,” Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, told The Huffington Post. “All of the producers of these shows say that they are trying to augur some authenticity, but in the end, they end up using their subjects for ridicule.”
Long before his dispute with A&E, Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson complained about the show’s producers. He said the program’s editors added bleeps to make it seem as if someone on the show had used profanity when in fact they hadn’t. He also complained that the family’s full expression of their Christian faith was left on the cutting-room floor.
It seemed, Robertson said back in October, that his family was working with a reality TV operation with “no moral compass.”
And all Southerners who felt mocked by reality TV stood up and said, “Amen.”
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: EditorBobDavis.