ABC has pulled "Welcome to the Neighborhood" after it was suggested to the network that a reality series in which three couples consider race and religion to help decide which contestant family gets to become their neighbor violates the federal Fair Housing Act.
In this social experiment, which was scheduled to debut July 10, seven families competed to win a 3,300-square-foot, four-bedroom, 21/2-bath house on a cul-de-sac near Austin.
They were a religious, African American family; a Wiccan family; a Latino family; an Asian family; a picture-perfect white family (except mom is a stripper); a young white family headed by staunch Republicans, only mom and dad are covered in tattoos; and a white gay couple with an adopted African American infant.
The couples who determine their fates, housing-wise, are white, Christian, Republican and close-minded.
In the course of the six episodes, ABC said, the locals learn that "while on the outside we may appear different, deep inside we share many common bonds" and "to see people, not stereotypes."
In the first two episodes, which were sent out to the media, various residents make statements about the contestants' ethnicity and religion that violate the Fair Housing Act, Shanna Smith, National Fair Housing Alliance president and CEO, told The TV Column.
"These residents are making their judgments because of race, national origin and religion," said Smith, who has seen those two episodes.
Because the network does convey a home as a result of the show, Smith's organization believes the "Welcome to the Neighborhood" program is covered under fair housing laws, which make it illegal to deny housing or otherwise make it unavailable because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability or family status.
Smith's group spearheaded a campaign against the program and was hoping to block the debut when word came yesterday that ABC had scrubbed it.
The network would not comment other than to issue a statement saying, "Our intention with 'Welcome to the Neighborhood' was to show the transformative process that takes place when people are forced to confront preconceived notions of what makes a good neighbor, and we believe the series delivers exactly that.
"However, the fact that the true change only happens over time made the episodic nature of this series challenging, and given the sensitivity of the subject matter in early episodes, we have decided not to air the series at this time."
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation also had cautioned ABC after seeing the first two episodes.
GLAAD entertainment media director Damon Romine, who has seen the entire series, said that although it's clear "the producers intended to send a powerful message about the value of diversity and embracing the differences of others," the episodic format "created serious issues in terms of depicting the neighbors' journey from intolerance to acceptance. . . .
"If they only watched the first episode or two, viewers could come away with a message that prejudice and discrimination are not that big a deal," Romine said. "Regardless of how things turn out at the end of the last show, it's dangerous to let intolerance and bigotry go unchallenged for weeks at a time."
In the first episode, the homeowners are introduced to the would-be neighbors, one family at a time.
After meeting the white family with the stripper mom -- still a secret at that point -- one resident comments: "My first impression of the Morgans was, very ordinary, very like us, white family, two kids, good-looking -- this is going to be easy if they are all like this."
But, of course, they aren't. When the same resident meets the Gonzalezes, she says:
"When the family came around the corner in their very large vehicle, kids kept coming, and kept coming and kept tumbling, and I realized right away, okay this is a Hispanic family."
"I was afraid they'd left somebody in [the car]," her husband chimed in. The Gonzalez family has four children; other families have three.
In the second episode, the residents decide unanimously to boot the Eckhardt family because they are Wiccan.
Smith said she was told that ABC's lawyers advised them the show did not violate the Fair Housing Act because it did not involve the sale or rental of a home.
"But they ignored the case law and the language about 'otherwise make unavailable,' " she said.
Whether the show airs or not, one of the families was awarded the house. The other contestants probably cannot challenge the outcome based on discrimination under fair housing laws, Smith speculated, because they probably had to sign waivers to appear on the series.
But her organization could sue because, Smith said, it would be harmed if the show airs. The National Fair Housing Alliances' injury comes in the form of "frustration of mission" and "diversion of resources," she says.
That's because the organization has spent millions of dollars trying to educate real estate agents and the general public about housing discrimination.
"Airing a program that gives viewers the idea that they can choose their neighbors . . . means we have to redouble our efforts to educate people that it's not true, and change our spending in order to conduct that education," Smith said.
Other families in the neighborhood could also sue if the series hit the airwaves and they felt their neighborhood was stigmatized by comments made on the air.
"They may have a standing [to sue] under the Fair Housing Act if . . . one of those families says, 'I want to live in an integrated neighborhood and now [minorities] might not come because of this show.' "