A&E has cancelled its reality series Generation KKK, one day after retitling it Escaping the KKK: A Documentary Series Exposing Hate in America, responding to negative public attention and pressure by taking the cowardly route and blaming the show’s production company instead of its own actions.
In a statement explaining the cancellation, A&E claimed ignorance of an extremely common practice: paying documentary reality series subjects for their time. The statement said, in part:
“A&E learned last night from the third-party producers who made the documentary that cash payments — which we currently understand to be nominal — were made in the field to some participants in order to facilitate access. While we stand behind the intent of the series and the seriousness of the content, these payments are a direct violation of A&E’s policies and practices for a documentary.”
Let’s pause for a minute and reflect about just how absurd this is.
- Paying reality show or “documentary” (the word used to pretend that a show is somehow different, even though episodic unscripted shows are produced in similar ways) participants is very standard, though not universal. Whether it’s a per diem or an appearance fee, the production is compensating participants for their time and the on-screen use of their lives.
- This is actually an ethical practice: a network is about to make money using real people’s experiences as subject matter, so shouldn’t those people make some money, too? In the same way that actors are paid on scripted shows, so, too, should unscripted show stars and subjects receive compensation for their time. After all, there would be no show without them. The true unethical practice is when a production does not paying people enough, and then profits—perhaps making millions of dollars off of real people’s lives. (Tangent: Yes, it is gross to think of a major corporation paying Klan members, or even Klan family members.)
- Budgets are tightly controlled by networks, and they know where money is going. It is, after all, their money. If someone just asked you for money to build you a house, would you let them just go build that house, or ask them to see a budget first?
- We’re presently in a fear-driven production climate where networks are more micro-managing and controlling than ever before. In the best scenario, there is a strong, supportive relationship between producer and network, where a network hires a production company and then gives it creative freedom to execute its vision, and the network partner gives valuable feedback to help make the product as best possible. In an all-too-common reality, the notes process can be insufferable, and there are wild amounts of micromanaging, starting with a desire to know what will happen on documentary reality series before they’re ever filmed. In either scenario, though, the network has lots of knowledge and control—just watch all those executive names go by in the credits of your favorite series.
So that leaves us with two options. A&E, a major cable network that has been wildly successful in the unscripted space, and that is part of a corporate family that is led by one of the most well-respected and emulated executives working today, seems like it’s:
- Incompetent and/or willfully naive, having been producing a show for almost a year yet on the eve of a holiday and Hollywood’s usual break they magically “learned” that the producers of a show did something standard—something the network insists is unacceptable for this particular show yet apparently never asked about or mentioned it before now. Even if A&E is telling the truth, and the production company hid something common from the network, discovering it only now is the definition of incompetence.
- Lying to cover its bad decisions about this series over the past week and then dumping the news on a Saturday, which also happened to be Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah, and hoping the blowback would be minimal because the entertainment press would simply report their claims uncritically and all blame would be transferred to the show’s producers.
I do not yet know what has happened behind the scenes here, but I do know that the entertainment press is largely reporting this news uncritically and moving on. In other words, this easy and cowardly route—blaming a nameless production company and taking zero responsibility for its role in this public relations disaster—seems to have worked so far for A&E.
A&E’s path to canceling its KKK reality series
First, let’s acknowledge that few people have watched the series. I’d planned to watch and review it this week or next, but A&E has already scrubbed the screeners from its press web site, and even removed its trailer from YouTube and Twitter. (The first few minutes of the series is still live on Facebook.)
A journalist I respect and know, BuzzFeed News’ Kate Aurthur, watched and tweeted that she “found it to be powerful and disturbing. It normalizes nothing.” She added, “The KKK people seem sad/desperate, the activists = heroic. But I have lost my compass on what can be twisted in the Trump age.”
Shaun King, a civil rights activist and writer, was sent what he identified as “a preview” and tweeted “it was clear that it was NOT them normalizing racism & bigotry, but exposing it.”
Even if the series did accomplish its goals, that’s now a question that may not be answerable by many of us. What we can examine is how badly A&E handled the announcement of Generation KKK.
- Last Sunday, A&E revealed the existence of the series publicly by giving word of its announcement to the New York Times, which essentially rewrote the network’s press release.
- The press release went out Monday morning, one that emphasized that the series was about “four prominent Klan families who each have a family member trying to escape the Ku Klux Klan.” The “prominent Klan families” got a full paragraph, and then the press release said the show “will also follow a network of anti-hate and peace activists working to break the cycle, by helping to convince members to leave the hate group.”
- Notice how the emphasis is on the Klan families, not the activists. That’s not to say that the activists’ work wasn’t part of the show, but it was clear that documenting the lives of the KKK members was getting top billing.
- Swift condemnation, including a celebrity call for a boycott of the network, followed. I’m not quite sure how it’s possible to name a series “Generation KKK” and not expect controversy, especially from a network that has a questionable track record.
- Friday afternoon, the network sent a press release saying the show was renamed Escaping the KKK: A Documentary Series Exposing Hate in America, perhaps the most hard-working subtitle of the year. This seemed like a desperate attempt to reposition the show, but if the focus was always intended to be on the escaping, why not call the show that?
- That press release also tried to wrap the show in approval from external organizations. It said that there was already a “planned PSA campaign with the [Anti-Defmatation League]”, and said that “A&E will feature in-show content provided by civil rights leaders between segments that gives further context to what viewers are seeing on air” and “produce and air a Town Hall-style show to facilitate deeper dialogue about ending hate in America.” Again, if this was always the intent, why not say so when the show was announced?
- The same day that release went out, Friday, is when the network says the magical discovery of payments to the families occurred. I’m so curious just how that happened. A routine audit of a show’s finances that occurs the night before a holiday less than three weeks before an airdate? A desperate brainstorming session to list all possible scapegoats?
- Saturday, the network released this statement:
“The documentary ‘Escaping the KKK’ was intended to serve as a close look at anti-hate extractors focused on helping people leave the Ku Klux Klan—the racist hate group with a long history of violence against African Americans and others. Our goal with this series has always been to expose and combat racism and hatred in all its forms.
However, A&E learned last night from the third-party producers who made the documentary that cash payments — which we currently understand to be nominal — were made in the field to some participants in order to facilitate access. While we stand behind the intent of the series and the seriousness of the content, these payments are a direct violation of A&E’s policies and practices for a documentary. We had previously provided assurances to the public and to our core partners – including the Anti-Defamation League and Color of Change – that no payment was made to hate group members, and we believed that to be the case at the time. We have now decided not to move forward with airing this project.
A&E takes the authenticity of its documentary programming and the subject of racism, hatred and violence very seriously. Just because this particular show goes away, the issues of hate in America do not. We will still seek to fight hate in America through on-air programming including town halls and documentary programs produced in partnership with civil rights organizations, as well as continue to work with the civil rights community to facilitate a deeper dialogue on ending hate through comprehensive educational and outreach campaigns.”
The network’s goals may have been noble, but its actions—starting with choosing to blame the production company, This is Just a Test—have been disgraceful. At the very least, A&E needs to answer serious questions about exactly how this unfolded.
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