By Emily Yahr, washingtonpost.com
Five days after A&E announced a documentary series about the Ku Klux Klan, the network has abruptly canceled the project.
In a statement released on Christmas Eve, an A&E spokesman said the network learned that the show’s producers — from a third-party production company — made cash payments to “facilitate access” to participants, which violates A&E policy. The eight-episode series, which was scheduled to air in January, 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.”
“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,” the statement said. “We have now decided not to move forward with airing this project.”
Though some reality TV producers do pay their subjects, the network emphasized that it is against this practice for documentaries.
“A&E takes the authenticity of its documentary programming and the subject of racism, hatred and violence very seriously,” the statement added. “Just because this particular show goes away, the issues of hate in America do not.”
The series, originally titled “Generation KKK,” was described as a behind-the-scenes series look at four prominent Klan families, each of which had a member trying to escape the organization. Producers would also spotlight peace activists who tried to help members leave. A&E, the network known for shows such as “Intervention” and “Scientology and the Aftermath,” caused an uproar last week when the show was first revealed. Some argued that any series about the KKK, even about people leaving, normalized the hate group. They see this as particularly troubling after an ugly presidential election campaign and the victory of Republican Donald Trump, which was followed by a wave of hate crimes.
In the wake of the backlash against the A&E series, the network responded that it would change the name to “Escaping the KKK: A Documentary Series Exposing Hate in America,” in order “to ensure that no one can mistake its intent and that the title alone does not serve to normalize the Klan.” A&E also announced partnerships with the Anti-Defamation League and Color of Change, and it said both civil rights organizations would produce viewer guides and an educational curriculum to go along with the series, as well as participate in a town-hall special.
“We feel that this new title and enhanced partnerships, the in-show and after-show components and our outreach plan more broadly reflect the existing anti-hate content of the series and our longstanding intention,” A&E Executive Vice President Rob Sharenow said in a statement about the updated elements of the series. “That goal is to expose and combat racism and hatred in all its forms and we appreciate the valuable feedback we have received.”
The series was produced by This is Just a Test, a Los Angeles-based production company behind shows such as TLC’s “I Am Jazz,” about a transgender teen; Animal Planet’s “Project Grizzly,” which features a bear trainer; and History’s “Big Rig Bounty Hunters,” about people who search for missing truck cargo.
Though the trailer for “Escaping the KKK” was removed from YouTube, the New York Times described an introductory scene in the series in which a KKK member gifts his young daughters KKK hoods. The story noted that the series, which was ordered about a year and a half ago, caused some “soul-searching” in the A&E executive ranks.
“We certainly didn’t want the show to be seen as a platform for the views of the KKK,” Sharenow told the Times. “The only political agenda is that we really do stand against hate.”