“Stereotypes about the South have risen again….”

Here at Society Matters, we’ve long argued that selling our Society’s good name to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation — the majority owner of the National Geographic Channel — has been a disaster for our Brand.

Well, the problem received national attention this morning on NPR, where TV critic Eric Deggans delivered a scathing commentary on the growth of what he called “Redneck TV” — and on the participation of (once blue-chip) documentary producers such as National Geographic:

… More than anything, these [Redneck] series feed an odd sort of racial stereotype. The subjects are hard-partying, not particularly intellectual and connected to the land in ways we Yankees can only guess. They’re real-life descendants of the Dukes of Hazzard who wave around the rebel flag and embrace the term “redneck” as a badge of honor.

Eric Deggans

Eric Deggans is the TV critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

Which explains the titles for some of these shows: CMT’s My Big Redneck Wedding and Redneck Riviera, a show gathering buzz as a southern-fried Jersey Shore.

And when the National Geographic Channel built a show around Alabama rocket scientist Travis Taylor, guess what they named it? Rocket City Rednecks.

Over in Rocket City, patriarch Charles Taylor was one of NASA’s original machinists. But here, he frets about a homemade submarine his son and grandson have built. And even when these guys have Ph.Ds in aerospace engineering, the show makes them sound like extras in a Hee Haw skit.

It’s even worse that all this hokum comes from traditional sources of great documentaries like History and the National Geographic Channel.

These shows give you a South with no people of color, and they weirdly lack contact with sophisticated southern cities like Atlanta or Dallas; I guess it’s tough to play the bumpkin card when you’re looking at skyscrapers and a booming technology corridor.

It helps to think of reality TV shows as situation comedies for a new generation. And every TV fan knows sitcoms depend on stereotypes to fuel their best jokes. On these shows, decades of stereotypes about the South have risen again, ready to make a new generation laugh at the expense of real understanding.

Despite reality TV’s tendency to stupefy everything it touches, perhaps it’s time for these programs to actually get real, and give us a vision of Southern culture that reaches beyond the fun loving redneck.

Deggans’ piece prompted a comment on NPR’s site from P Blevins, who wrote:

I really hate these shows. They do for Southerns what Jersey Shore does for Yankees. The worst part is these folks serve themselves up to be made fun and laughed at. Yes some of them are laughing all the way to the bank, but the ones who didn’t make the TV cut just get more stereotypes heaped upon them. These shows are nothing more then bigotry on the small screen used to sell a product the same way the once thick lipped Uncle Ben (referring to the original image made to look like a stereotypical black man) was used to sell rice. I am a Southern and proud to have been born into such a rich tradition and culture, why this kind of trash is promoted by the once relevant and upstanding National Geographic Society I will never know. ….


Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp is the majority owner of the National Geographic Channel, gets the last laugh.

John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society

  • Travellover60

    As long as NGS is making money (for the executives of course, certainly not for the staff and the members), what do JF, the Board, and other high ranking executives care? They’ve thrown the good NGS name right into the mud.

  • Cdwidea

    throwing in rocket city rednecks along with My Big redneck Wedding is lazy.  the show on national geographic is by no means perfect (its a science show, not a southern cultural show, my god).  , but i love it and I’m a long-time subscriber to the geographic – why can’t they have fun?  the show isn’t over the top, its not boring like most of their other science shows – it could cut down on the redneck references, gets old, but its not trashing the brand nor destroying the south.  These rocket city guys are the real deal, they like to have fun and the celebrate being a redneck – but they aren’t mocking rednecks, they aren’t making the ‘south rise again’ – they are trying to teach science.

    • Well, Cdwidea, I haven’t seen My Big Redneck Wedding. In fact, I haven’t even seen Rocket City Rednecks. So I’m in no position to evaluate the substance of Mr. Deggens criticism. 

      What worries me is that a respected TV critic is on NPR explaining how the Channel’s programming is an embarrassment. You disagree, but I hope you’ll acknowledge this: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp — not the National Geographic Society — determines what will be on the Channel. And why shouldn’t they? News Corp is the majority owner of the Channel — and, given their track record, they probably see Deggens’ criticisms not as a flaw, but a feature.

      Deggens writes: “It helps to think of reality TV shows as situation comedies for a new generation. And every TV fan knows sitcoms depend on stereotypes to fuel their best jokes. On these shows, decades of stereotypes about the South have risen again, ready to make a new generation laugh at the expense of real understanding.”

      To which Mr. Murdoch would probably say:  That’s entertainment!

      • cdwidea

        I think the issue is you blindly accept any criticism of geographic.  I’m concerned that you know little about the situation but are simply accepting that a critic’s opinion is correct and has weight.    Not every decision at national geographic is harmful – i stand by this show,  my kids love it, my friends love it, – the critic is trying to turn the show into a parable of the south, but its just a science show with self-proclaimed rednecks.  Why can’t it be just that? 

        • Hi C —

          Yes, it’s true — I do find myself sympathetic to criticisms of NGS, but only because I think many of them are justified. And because I still think the Society can be much more than what it has become. 

          I don’t believe that every decision John Fahey makes is harmful. The Society funds plenty of research that causes no harm at all. Much of what the Magazine publishes is harmless. Setting a world record for jumping jacks — again, pretty harmless. And although I don’t regularly watch the Channel, I’m sure there are some programs worth praising. But I worry that all the other stuff I tend to highlight is gradually eroding National Geographic’s reputation. And I have yet to see anything resembling a long-term, sustainable business plan that will enable the Society to survive in the years after John Fahey has retired. 

          I think NGS is mostly running on fumes — selling the brand equity that was built up during the past 120+ years. I hope I’m wrong. I hope John Fahey & Tim Kelly have an ace up their sleeves. I hope they’ve figured out a way to survive in this new media landscape. But based on what they’re serving up to the public, I don’t see a Big Picture for NGS that looks especially inspiring. Do you?

          Thanks for your comment & for stopping by.

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