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A Refreshing Dose of Reality

Committed to the First Amendment 7/25/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

UPN deserves credit for standing up to Washington amidst criticism of its new reality show, Amish in the City, debuting this week.
Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) had fired off indignant press releases, demanding a screening copy of the series. UPN said no, correctly—and courageously, given that powerful forces in government these days are concerned about the issue of station control over what networks send their way.

"We certainly are not going to have screenings for any member of Congress who may have a problem with it," Viacom Co-President Leslie Moonves told TV critics last week. "I don't want to be judged by a member of Congress before the show even goes on the air."

We're not really blaming Pitts, or the 50 other congressmen who signed with him, for wanting to see the show. Neither did Moonves, who said he "respects they have a job to do" and a constituency to represent. But Pitts should recognize that no media outlet can knuckle under to government demands to prescreen content.

We're gratified that Viacom, Moonves and UPN said no, particularly in this climate, when broadcasters have been torn between standing up for their rights and trying to preserve their billions' worth of station licenses.

UPN also did not provide a screener to its own affiliate in Lancaster, Pa., which wanted to prescreen it for community leaders before deciding to air it. We're less comfortable that the network didn't agree to that. WLYH, after all, holds the license and serves its community—distinctively, one heavily populated by Amish. It's perfectly reasonable that the station would not want to offend a segment of the community even if, as is also true, few Amish watch TV. Their neighbors, and the rest of America, do.

But the Moonves stance and others by Viacom prove that the industry has finally begun to fight back against Washington. Early last week, Moonves said any proposed fine against the company over the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident would be "patently ridiculous" and vowed to duke it out in court (see story, page 24). He said the network would "vigorously defend our right to produce content that some deem controversial." That is a welcome change from Viacom's treatment of The Reagans
miniseries, which earned seven Emmy nominations for Showtime (instead of for CBS, which conservatives appeared to have frightened out of airing it).

That brings us to the second problem with the clamor over Amish in the City: the danger of prejudging a program. It turns out Amish in the City
is hardly a threat to the religious sect. UPN screened the premiere for critics last week. and the consensus was that, far from exploiting Amish kids, it showed them as having a sweetness and dignity that left their hip urban counterparts wanting by comparison. We have a feeling WLYH will come to that conclusion, too. Quipped The Philadelphia Inquirer
after seeing the debut episode, "No Amish were harmed in the making of this show."

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