Lawmakers protest UPN’s planned Amish reality TV series

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — More than 50 members of Congress have asked the corporate overseers of UPN to abandon plans for a reality-format television series featuring Amish teenagers, saying that the depiction of the teens testing their faith in their first big-city experience could harm the sect’s culture.

“The mentality reminds me of the old side shows in the circus,” Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., said in a telephone interview Friday. “And it is wrong to do this to a minority group like the Amish.”

Pitts, who represents southern Pennsylvania’s Amish countryside, said he went public with his campaign against the series after a two-page letter and a telephone conversation earlier this month failed to sway Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS, which oversees UPN and shares the parent company, Viacom.

“Basically we said to them that we viewed this as exploitative in nature,” Pitts said. “Putting on young Amish teens who are in a very vulnerable period of their lives making a decision that will affect the rest of their lives.”

All 51 of the signers are Republicans, and not all represent districts with Amish communities.

Members of the Amish religious sect dress simply and shun most technology. Their horse-drawn black buggies appear on country roads in rural Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio, which combined are home to two-thirds of the country’s estimated 185,000 Amish.

Michigan ranks fifth with an estimated 9,000 Amish, according to Don Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Groups at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College. Most are scattered across the central Lower Peninsula from Newaygo to Sanilac counties and along the Indiana border.

The UPN series would feature the Amish teens at age 16, when they are allowed to break free of the religion’s strict code of conduct to decide whether they want to be baptized as adults. During the period of “rumspringa,” a Pennsylvania Dutch term that means “running around,” they often date, drink, drive cars and move away from home. Most return to the faith.

A spokeswoman for UPN, which said it reaches 85 percent of the country, declined to answer questions, but released a brief statement in response to the lawmakers.

“UPN and the show’s producers have every intention of treating the Amish, their beliefs and their heritage with the utmost respect and decency,” UPN said. “Any young Amish adults who do choose to participate in this reality show will do so only of their own free will and with absolutely full knowledge of the content, nature and intent of the program.”

UPN said the series is “early in the development stage” and asked that “judgment … be reserved until the show is produced.”

Besides the lawmakers, newspaper columnists in central Pennsylvania have excoriated the project, as have advocates for the Amish and rural America.

One Amish man said in an interview Friday that the TV show was a hot topic in the Amish community in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, and that people were upset about it.

“What I expect is that they will find teenagers whose parents are Amish, but have no connection to the community, and they will pose as Amish and put things in a bad light,” said Tobias Brubaker, 31, a Scottsville, Ky., resident who was visiting family members in Pennsylvania.

Getting involved as an information clearinghouse for UPN’s opponents is the Whitesburg, Ky.-based Center for Rural Strategies, one of the groups that brought public opinion to bear against CBS’ attempt last year to make a real-life series based on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

CBS had hunted for an Appalachian family that it would pay $500,000 to live a year in a Hollywood mansion. However, many politicians and others in the mountain region and the South attacked the idea as a mockery of rural Americans, and the project died.

In the meantime, reports have trickled out that UPN “researchers” are scouting for volunteers in Amish communities in Indiana and Pennsylvania, among other places. A woman in Indiana who confirmed that she was one of the UPN researchers declined to respond to questions when contacted by telephone.

Joseph Yoder, an Amish cultural historian in Shipshewana, Ind., said he became aware earlier this month that UPN researchers were in his community, and arranged a meeting last week with two researchers, and the bishop of a local Amish district.

In the meeting, Yoder tried to explain to them why he thinks the television series is wrong, but to no avail, he said.

“They wanted our blessing to do the show and, no, we absolutely couldn’t do it,” Yoder said. “How irresponsible could we be to send our young people to Hollywood?”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Associated Press, USA
Feb. 21, 2004
Mark Levy
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday February 23, 2004.
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