Sept. 08--There is a Southernism that says, "We don't hide our crazy kinfolk in the attic. We parade them around on the front porch and celebrate them."
It has also been pointed out that there is no such thing as a "Northern Living" magazine, and for good reason.
Those who call the South home have long known that life is just more interesting (or weird) here, and apparently TV producers have peeked into the parlor and decided it's true, as well. A quick look at a television guide reveals that the number of shows featuring Southerners -- be they rednecks, hillbillies, swamp people, mountain men or Honey Boo Boos -- is nearing two dozen.
"The South is hot right now. These shows make people feel good," says Linda Orrison, also known as "Mama Shed" on the Food Network's "The Shed," a brand-new show about a barbecue restaurant in Ocean Springs, Miss.
Kay Robertson, better known as Miss Kay on "Duck Dynasty," the 800-pound critter of Southern reality shows, says the series' fans come from all over the country, not just south of the Mason-Dixon line. They say they "can relate to us, and they say we are real and sincere people," she told the Times Free Press in an interview before her appearance in July at the paper's She: An Expo for Women.
Scanning up and down the remote finds shows with Southern men hunting alligators that have taken up residence in folks' backyard ponds ("Gator Boys"), mountain men chasing wampus beasts and devil dogs over hill and dale ("Mountain Monsters"), hillbillies turning MacGyver and making tools out of anything handy ("Hillbilly Blood") and Southern bridezillas ("My Big Redneck Wedding").
A few weeks ago, Kentucky resident Damaris Phillips won this year's "Food Network Star" competition and a show of her own by promising to teach men how to woo a female by cooking Southern food, which she calls "the food of love."
"It's like my grandmother always said, the stove is not the only thing heatin' up the kitchen," she says in a short video for her show, "Eat, Date, Love."
There are even a few realities from Tennessee. "Ghostland Tennessee," which debuted in February, follows a group of ghost hunters from Gallatin, Tenn., who call themselves Tennessee Wraith Chasers and have a member with a Southern accent so thick the show uses subtitles when he talks.
And Mark "Coonrippy" Brown, also from Gallatin, found fame but lost his love. A YouTube video of Brown dancing to Aretha Franklin with his pet raccoon, Gunshow, went viral in late July. The video led to national news coverage, and Brown even said a production company offered to film a reality show with him. Gunshow died earlier this year, and the show was supposed to center on Brown's relationship with another raccoon named Rebekah.
Just a few days after the dancing video went viral, however, officers with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency showed up at Brown's house and took Rebekah. It turns out that keeping and caring for a raccoon as a pet is illegal. Now, Brown said he is petitioning the state to grant him an exception and give him Rebekah back.
"Small Town Security," about the goings-on at JJK Security in Ringgold, Ga., has aired for two season on AMC and has gotten people locally and nationally talking about the outlandish things the company's staff discusses, although technically, JJK's owner, Joan Koplan, was raised in New York City.
Katie Buchanan, senior vice president of programming and acquisition at CMT, which produces "My Big Redneck Vacation" and "Redneck Island," says that, these days, viewers seem fascinated to discover that there are "these unique characters out there."
"There is a fascination with these subcultures or different themes around family and workplace and home," she says. "Whether it's Southern or heartland, we are starting to see that more than ever."
CMT is actively scouring the country looking for more families, businesses and characters to feature, she says.
And it's not just CMT. A&E, History Channel, TLC, National Geographic, The Food Network, TruTV and Animal Planet have similar shows. Al Roker Productions, the company run by "The Today Show" star, recently sent out a call for "country Kardashians" to star in a new reality show.
Rural vs. urban
Some say a closer look at these shows reveals that what sometimes gets labeled as Southern is more accurately labeled non-urban.
"Oh, I think that is definitely true," says TV critic and columnist Kevin McDonough. "It's not a Southern thing, it's a rural thing.
"What's funny is that there has always been popular shows about rural subjects, and then the networks would just get rid of them."
McDonough, who writes the daily "Tune in Tonight" column on the Times Free Press TV page, points out that shows like "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Green Acres" and "Petticoat Junction" did well with audiences in the 1960s and '70s, but "advertisers hated them" and didn't want their products associated with such shows. But Southerners have always been on TV in some fashion, whether it's the good ol' boy shenanigans of "The Dukes of Hazzard," the scheming, conniving rich folks of "Dallas" or the biting female-centric comedy of "Designing Women."
But network-made dramas and comedies aren't what's hot from the South these days. Now it's reality shows -- and it seems to have caught fire with "Duck Dynasty." The show returned for its fourth season last month drawing 11.8 million viewers. That number makes it a big hit for A&E, but McDonough points out most of today's producers would be thrilled with half that number.
"It's changed because everyone is scrambling for not 20 million viewers but 3 or 4 [million]," he says.
Second on the list of red-hot rednecks is "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," about a family in McIntyre, Ga. Premiering in 2012, the show has since shown up in magazines, newspapers and on network news programs across the country, but not always in a glowing tribute.
Seven-year-old Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson, along with her mother June Shannon, father and three older sisters are filmed picking up roadkill for dinner (and naming it), passing gas voluminously and being what some folks would say was generally uncouth. But the show is huge.
For its recent second-season premier in July, "Honey Boo Boo" partnered with Us Weekly magazine -- 1.9 million circulation per week -- which contained Watch 'n' Sniff cards featuring six scents that matched up with scenes in the series. The scents were rather tame, however -- a train, a baby (not the diaper), pork and beans, go-karting, a cupcake and a "redneck Slip'N Slide" made out of butter.
It's no secret that it is cheaper to produce reality shows than traditional sitcoms or dramas. You don't have to pay as much for writers, set builders, stars or any of the other union-based jobs, McDonough says.
But Buchanan says such shows are what viewers want to watch. "I think overall the theme of reality television is always going to be a reflection of true life," she says.
That authenticity sometimes gets questioned, however. A recent Associated Press story reported that Eustace Conway, one of the stars of "Mountain Men" on the History Channel, doesn't always abide by the primitive methods of living he espouses on the show. A former intern claims that, when the cameras are off, the nail guns and earth-moving equipment come out and the hand tools his forefathers might have used are put aside.
But a question arises with the popularity of these shows: When it comes to the non-Southern parts of the country, which obviously are watching these shows, too, are they laughing with us or at us? That might depend on whether you live in a big city or in a more rural part of the country and also which show is being talked about (think "Honey Boo Boo").
It's a key question for the networks, as well, according to Justin Wyatt, vice president of consumer insights and research at CMT, as is the question of whether a show seems contrived. He and Buchanan both say CMT is looking for characters that audiences will laugh with, not at.
"There is humor," Buchanan says. "A lot of humor, but audiences are laughing with them."
Audiences also know when they are being played, Wyatt says.
"When we talk to viewers about this, they immediately sense when someone is creating a persona," he says. "The authenticity is absolutely crucial."
Debuting on Aug. 5, "The Shed" centers around the Orrisons and their South Mississippi barbecue and blues joint. It features a colorful cast of characters, including both staff and patrons. The family had been featured on several cooking shows before and were being courted by a number of networks before signing with Food Network. Orrison insists nothing is scripted in the show, and that everyone involved was insistent that it not portray anyone in a bad light or as a parody.
"It's just us," she says. "We didn't want a redneck show or one where we are fussing or fighting. That's not us. We are Southerners and proud of it, and we will stay true to ourselves. We are not gonna fluff it up."
Wyatt says part of the appeal of such shows, both for viewers and the on-camera stars, is celebrating who they are, even to the point of reclaiming certain words.
"I think people are interested in reclaiming the term 'redneck,'" he says. "It can be a derogatory word, but now people say, 'Yeah, I'm a redneck.' It's being proud of the authenticity in yourself. Plus, there is a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek humor."
McDonough sees things a little differently. He thinks the shows are less about holding a mirror up to society as they are about simply going where the easiest audience to reach is.
"I think, and this is just a theory, that a lot of programmers have almost given up on the young urban demographic, the people who watched 'Seinfeld' or 'Friends.' They are not watching TV anymore, or not cable or network TV. They are watching Netflix or whatever."
He believes the reality shows have simply replaced "bad sitcoms," but acknowledges that they do a good job of appealing to a certain demographic.
"Reality TV is really an extension of professional wrestling and is always in search of larger-than-life 'characters,' folks who tell it like it is and don't hold back. People who can't say 'boo' in their office or in school for fear of being chastised like watching highly opinionated characters."
But he's also quick to say that networks will drop the Southern-fried format "like a hot potato" when something new comes along that appears to be more popular.
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