Religion, ridicule & reality TV

A few weeks ago, Laura Kwerel, a producer for Interfaith Voices, interviewed me about National Geographic’s TV series Meet The Hutterites.

Our Q&A airs this week on 60+ radio stations in the United States and Canada:

Orwell’s World


Read the whole thing here.


In related news: David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channel, still has not responded to the Hutterites’ plea for help.

David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channel

David Lyle

How to avoid making “exploitative” TV

Attorney Jeffrey Sveen
(for non-Flash version of this interview, please see below)

TO: John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society
RE: The Old Believers “docu-series”

At an all-hands staff meeting in September 2012, you asked a vital question: When making a National Geographic TV series about a “subculture of a subculture of a subculture,” how do you find the proper “balance” and avoid making “exploitative” TV?

Here’s one simple way: Treat the people in our TV shows with respect. Approach them as partners and collaborators, not as entertainment assets. Be decent. Be transparent. Share. These people are trusting our Society to tell their stories to the world, and for that we owe them far more than just a paycheck.

Old Believer church in Nikolaevsk, Alaska

Old Believer church in Nikolaevsk, Alaska

Consider, for example, a new National Geographic “docu-series” that’s about to begin shooting in Nikolaevsk, Alaska. The show focuses on a community of Russian Orthodox Old Believers, many of whom are now being recruited to appear in the series. Are we approaching them as creative partners? Are we offering them firm guarantees that we will produce a show that’s “balanced” and avoids “exploitation”? People in Alaska are wondering….

A few days ago, one resident of Nikolaevsk sent me an unsolicited copy of the “talent services agreement,” a 14-page legal contract that the “artists” must sign if they want to participate — and to get paid. This resident also asked me a question: What does this 14-page document say? What exactly do we get by participating — and what are we signing away?

Jeffrey Sveen

Jeffrey Sveen

I’m not a lawyer, so I sent the contract to Jeffrey Sveen. He’s the attorney who represents the Hutterites in their on-going attempt to persuade our Society to make right what went horribly wrong with National Geographic’s Meet The Hutterites reality series. Mr. Sveen generously agreed to review the contract, and to translate the legalese into plain English.

Listen to Mr. Sveen’s analysis and it’s hard to shake the feeling that even before the producers unpack their cameras, our show is already out of “balance.” In short, the contract seems to say to the people of Nikolaevsk: We agree to give you a paycheck to participate, but beyond that, we promise you nothing at all. 

What do you think, John? If you want to avoid an “exploitative” TV show about a “subculture of a subculture of a subculture,” is this a good way to begin?


“Talent services agreement” for Old Believers TV series

Hit-and-run TV: Who’s driving that Big Yellow Car?

(to hear the same audio with chapter divisions, please see below)

car_at_night_headlightsImagine you witnessed a hit-and-run “accident” one night on the street outside your home. An innocent victim — let’s call him the Hutterite — gets run over by a Big Yellow Car, which then speeds away… but not before you get the license plate number.

The Hutterite struggles to recover, and tries to contact the Big Yellow Car’s owner — let’s call him David Lyle — but Mr. Lyle won’t return the Hutterite’s letters and phone calls. He’s a busy guy. As the CEO of a major TV channel, Mr. Lyle has much to do, and many miles to drive before he sleeps.

Now imagine that six months later you look up — and you see the same Big Yellow Car speeding down the street, heading straight at another innocent pedestrian — let’s call him the Old Believer. We think it’s a safe bet that you’d probably stand up and shout: Hey Old Believer! Look out for that Big Yellow Car!

That’s essentially what I’ve been doing these past few weeks. After the debacle of Meet The Hutterites, David Lyle — CEO of the National Geographic Channel (which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) — has sent a production team to the village of Nikolaevsk, Alaska, to produce a TV “docu-series” about the Old Believers. The premise of the series — religious community devoted to its traditions struggles to confront the challenges of the modern world, etc. — is eerily the same as Meet The Hutterites.

In an attempt to inform the people of Nikolaevsk about what happened to the Hutterites — and to find out the latest news about the pre-production on the Old Believers TV series — I called various people in Nikolaevsk, including Nick & Tina Fefelov, who are being recruited to appear in the show.

When we spoke on the phone, Tina expressed serious reservations about participating in the production. She also mentioned that National Geographic’s production team — Jarrett Lambo, Charlie Marquardt, and Natalia Livingston — would be at her house this Tuesday (February 26, 2013) at 10am to answer questions. Since I have a host of questions about this production — including questions I emailed to Jarrett Lambo on February 16, but which he has ignored — I asked Tina if it would be helpful to her and to the community if I joined that morning meeting at her house via conference call.

Nick & Tina thought that was an excellent idea.

On Tuesday, I called Tina. She put me on speaker phone and introduced me to the group that had gathered in her living room. Almost immediately, Jarrett and Charlie, who are familiar with what we do here at Society Matters, announced that all their comments were off the record. I encouraged them to let us share their answers to our questions — from Tina, Nick, and me — so the entire community of Nikolaevsk might better understand how a National Geographic “docu-series” gets made. After all, bringing light to the facts helps people make wiser decisions. But Jarrett and Charlie insisted they wanted this meeting to be “intimate,” and therefore it had to be off the record.

What to do? If I was guided by the journalistic standards of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation — which is infamous for hacking the phone of a dead school girl, and which also owns the National Geographic Channel — I’d probably post the whole interview anyway. But that’s unethical. If Jarrett & his team refuse to publicly answer some rather simple questions, that’s obviously their right.

But the questions I raised during our discussion — well, those are my questions, and they’re hardly new ones.

So here again are my questions, comments, and concerns — this time in audio form — from Tuesday’s Q&A at Nick & Tina’s house. But since Jarrett and Charlie insisted that everything they said was off the record, I’ve removed all comments by Jarrett, Charlie, and Natalia. (Instead of their voices, you’ll just hear an audio whoosh.)

The people of Nikolaevsk won’t find any answers in this audio, but they might find a few questions that are worth asking again… if and when you see Jarrett, Charlie and Natalia around town:

“Hell” in prime time on the National Geographic Channel

At an all-hands staff meeting  on September 20, 2012, John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society, delivered a very honest and thoughtful appraisal of the programming problems plaguing the National Geographic Channel (which is majority owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation).

While John specifically mentioned Meet The Hutterites and American Gypsies (two shows we’ve covered extensively here at Society Matters), he also offered reassurances that the Channel’s new programming hubs — in New York, Los Angeles, and London — were beginning to create new shows that would make us all proud. John’s comments are definitely worth a listen:

New hubs. New programs. New hope. It felt as though we might finally be turning a corner.

Then we bumped into one of the Channel’s new prime time offerings for 2013 — Highway Thru Hell:

In the 1996 Frontline documentary Who’s Afraid of Rupert Murdoch?, TV critic Tom Shales offered the following insight about Mr. Murdoch’s media empire, built primarily on newspapers and TV shows with lots of sex, violence, and sensationalism:

This argument of, “I’m giving the people what they want” — I mean, I think that’s probably what Nero said when he fed Christians to the lions. As far as I know, the ratings on that were very high. It was a big crowd pleaser. You know, a terrible accident on the highway causes everyone to slow down and stare at it. That doesn’t mean you necessarily would want to put it on prime time.

Highway Thru Hell airs on Thursdays at 8pm on the National Geographic Channel.

John Fahey National Geographic

In Alaska, the Old Believers send our Society a message

National_Geographic_Old_Believers_cold_reception_Homer_TribuneRead the whole thing here.

This article raises a host of new questions:

  • How is it possible that two producers from National Geographic could begin work on a “docu-series” that’s almost identical to Meet The Hutterites, yet have no idea the series even exists? Given the controversy surrounding what happened last year in Montana, why didn’t the two producers say something like: Yes, of course we know about the Hutterite series. David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channel, has insisted that all producers watch it, study it, and learn about what went wrong with that production. We have learned. And we stand before you tonight with a solemn pledge that as we produce this series about the Old Believers, we will not repeat the mistakes of the past.
  • Why did National Geographic producers tell the media to leave the meeting? If the “docu-series” is, in fact, a documentary, and there are no “reality” TV stunts awaiting the Old Believers, then why is it necessary to whisper behind closed doors? Why the secrecy? Why not relieve the community’s fears by opening up the doors and windows to let the sun shine in?
  • Does the National Geographic Channel think the painful legacy of Meet The Hutterites is going to simply fade away?

We’ll keep you posted.

The Hutterites ask, yet again, for David Lyle’s help. And David Lyle ignores them, yet again.

To: The people of Homer, Alaska
Re: National Geographic’s “Old Believers”

David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channel

David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channel

Tomorrow night (Tuesday, January 29, 2013), producers from National Geographic Television will invite all interested residents who live in and around Homer, Alaska, to a casting call for a new “docu-series” about the Old Believers.

As you ponder your options — and the money that’s being offered as an incentive for your participation — it might be prudent to consider the recent case of the Hutterites of Montana’s King Ranch Colony.

The short version: In September 2011, a producer representing National Geographic promised the Hutterites — in a legally signed contract — that he would make a “documentary” which would “celebrate Participants’s way of life as a model for family values.” However, that is not what the producer delivered.

Instead, the 10-part TV series American Colony: Meet The Hutterites is a “reality” show which included many scenes that were dreamed up, then staged and shot to increase the program’s dramatic punch. Wesley is rushed to the hospital in an ambulance because he’s having a heart attack? That was fake. The drunk Hutterite teens who accidentally burned down the “barn”? Totally staged. Clinton driving a car without a license (and then getting arrested)? That stunt, we’re told, was the brain-child of the TV production team.

Meet The Hutterites has been deeply embarrassing and painfully divisive for members of the Hutterite community. And now their pain and embarrassment has gone global: the show, which premiered last summer in the United States, is now being broadcast all over the world on the National Geographic Channel.

(For the longer version — with supporting documents, correspondence, production notes, testimonials, media coverage, and more — please see this page.)

Afew weeks ago, lawyer Jeffrey Sveen, who represents Montana’s Hutterite community, sent yet another letter to David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channel (and the former head of the now-defunct Fox Reality Channel). In his letter (please see below), Mr. Sveen outlines the many problems the Hutterites have faced during their brief encounter with National Geographic, and respectfully asks Mr. Lyle to take remedial action.

More than three weeks later, Mr. Lyle has still refused to respond.

His silence is deafening, for Mr. Sveen’s letter indirectly raises — and answers — some critical questions about David Lyle:

  • What sort of person is Mr. Lyle?
  • Should the people of Homer, Alaska, trust him?
  • If problems arise during the production of the Old Believers “docu-series,” will Mr. Lyle be there to support to the community?
  • Most of all: Would the global reputation of the Old Believers be safe in Mr. Lyle’s hands?

Please give it some thought. Because if you wait, and ask these questions in six months… well, it’ll be six months too late.

Good luck.

Hutterite lawyer TO David Lyle, NG Channel CEO

The Fine Art of the Sucker Punch

Remember how our Society sucker punched the Hutterites of Montana’s King Ranch Colony?

If so, this story (from the Homer Tribune in Alaska) will seem like deja vu all over again:


Lisa Blake (via IMDB)

Lisa Blake (via IMDB)

Executive Producer Lisa Blake has a long history of making shows with “gravitas.” Here are some highlights from her website:

… As the entertainment news producer for FOX’s national morning news show, Good Day Live, and the Emmy winning Good Day LA, she produced and directed live and live-to-tape segments exploring Hollywood Behind the Scenes and covering weekly red carpet events and feature film premieres. During her three years at FOX News Lisa worked with such luminaries as Brad Pitt, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jim Carrey, Halle Berry, Jack Nicholson and Robin Williams, among countless others. …

Lisa was the supervising producer on FOX’s Reality Remix, and a producer on reality shows Mr. Personality for FOX, ABC’s Are You Hot? and E!’s Style Star. … 

And why do Lisa Blake’s promises to Alaska’s Old Believers ring a little hollow? Hmmm… maybe because she seems to be reading from the same playbook as did Jeff Collins, who produced Meet The Hutterites:

{ Listen to the whole interview here. }

Sucker punching small groups of people,
and then humiliating them on international TV,
is one way to make a buck.

The trick, though, is to keep moving…
and get out of town before the locals figure out
who you really are. 

Montana… Alaska… New York City
and onward our Society goes, hoping that the truth
won’t catch up with us. 

(It’s a lot like The Ali G Show.
Except Ali G punked the rich & powerful,
not the powerless.) 

Eventually, Murdoch & His Boyz
will pocket their money and move on…
leaving the National Geographic brand
damaged beyond repair.  

Dear John,
Are you still out there?


Speaking of “fake”: What about all those fake scenes in National Geographic’s “Meet The Hutterites”?

From ABC News:

Former ‘Storage Wars’ Star Files Lawsuit Claiming Show Is Fake

Dec. 13, 2012

One of television’s most popular shows, the A&E reality series “Storage Wars,” has come under fire from one of its former stars who claims the show is nearly entirely fake. The lawsuit has prompted questions about just how “real” reality shows like this one are, and if viewers will turn against shows accused of lying….

“I don’t think that, in the immediate, claims of fraud will make a huge difference in viewership,” Michael O’Connell, an editor at the Hollywood Reporter told ABC News. “‘Storage Wars’ gets huge, huge ratings, and this lawsuit probably won’t turn people away.”

As reality TV in all iterations has become more and more popular, with reality programming on just about every channel, people have adjusted what they expect from such shows.

We accept that there will be a certain amount of staging – mostly for logistical reasoning – but if you take even more liberties, it can become an ethical issue,” O’Connell told ABC.

People also have different expectations for reality shows based on which channel airs them, O’Connell said.

People gauge the believability of these shows based on what network they are on,” O’Connell said. “With A&E, History Channel, Discovery Channel, TLC, people are more inclined to believe you are getting things at face-value, because of the educational premise of those networks that has sort of been ingrained into the psyche.”

In related news: The Hutterites of Montana’s King Ranch Colony were featured this summer in a National Geographic Channel “reality” series called American Colony: Meet The Hutterites. Before production began, National Geographic made a contractual commitment to the Hutterites to shoot a “documentary,” but in the weeks and months that followed, the Channel failed to deliver on that promise. Instead, the producers fabricated entire scenes not for “logistical reasons” but for dramatic effect. Drunk Hutterite teenagers accidentally burn down a barn (completely staged)… Colony member has a “heart attack,” and is rushed to the local hospital’s emergency room (all faked for the cameras)… and much more. (Read the behind-the-scenes details, along with personal testimonials by Colony members, here.)

In early September, Hutterite Elders demanded to speak directly with David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channel, to express objections and concerns which they had already communicated in writing. According to our sources, Mr. Lyle (in Washington, DC) showed up for a video conference, and listened politely as the Elders (in Montana) described the full backstory to David Lyle’s own TV production. In response, Mr. Lyle said he was shocked — shocked! — at the alleged deceptions by his producers, and promised to investigate and then report back to the Elders.

What’s happened since that teleconference more than three months ago? Nothing. Mr. Lyle works for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns the National Geographic Channel. As one of the biggest and most powerful media companies in the world, News Corp has plenty of cash on hand to pay battalions of lawyers to handle exactly this type of… unpleasantness. With that sort of legal muscle on his side, David Lyle is simply ignoring the Hutterites’ complaints and moving on.

Meanwhile in Montana, the Hutterites are pondering their next move. They still have their good name, their farm, their faith, their history, and each other. They also have the collective hope that the National Geographic Society — and its Chairman & CEO John Fahey — will publicly acknowledge what went terribly wrong on this “reality” series, and then step forward to find a way to make things right again.

John Fahey National Geographic


Your turn, David Lyle

Reality TV is a poker game. It’s a contest between programming executives whose jobs depend on their competitive ability to draw a big audience in prime time by whatever means necessary.

One of the game’s biggest challenges: How to push community standards to the absolute limit by producing shows that are insulting, scandalous, titillating, and/or offensive, which attracts free media attention… and (executives hope) a big crowd.

David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channel (NGC) and the former head of the Fox Reality Channel, is a master of the form. At NGC earlier this year, Mr. Lyle insulted thousands of faithful Christians with his reality series Meet The Hutterites. His show American Gypsies, which was marketed as a low-budget knock-off of The Godfather and The Sopranos, elicited threats of legal action by leaders of the Roma (“Gypsy”) community, who said the National Geographic series was “racist, slanderous, degrading, and possibly illegal.” Mr. Lyle is unapologetic — at least publicly — about what he’s been doing to National Geographic’s good name. And to his critics, who bemoan the tabloidization of the National Geographic Society, you can easily imagine Mr. Lyle (and his boss, Rupert Murdoch) saying: Go f**k yourselves.

Meanwhile, this high-stakes poker game continues, with Discovery most recently upping the ante: We see your Hutterites and your Gypsies… and we raise you with Amish Mafia:

Will National Geographic keep playing this degrading game? All indicators suggest that we will.

John Fahey National Geographic


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