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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Television Cul-de-Sac Mystery: Why Was Reality Show Killed?

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.

For the rest of the story, goto The NY Times


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