VH1’s new series, ”Music Behind Bars,” hasn’t aired yet, but it’s already upset several parents, legislators, Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly and his audience, and pretty much the entire state of Pennsylvania, it seems. The show is a documentary series, shot in various prisons, about rock bands that consist of convicted criminals and therefore face unusual challenges in getting their music heard (although they do have literally captive audiences). But the very fact that people VH1’s own website characterizes as murderers, rapists, and thieves will nonetheless enjoy TV exposure is what galls the protestors, whose responses have ranged from urging VH1 to donate the show’s profits to victims’ organizations, to threatening a boycott of the network and its sponsors.
The outcry began last week when Mary Orlando of Allentown, Penn., saw a commercial for the series earlier this month that showed Christopher Bissey, the man who killed her daughter in 1995, singing backup for Dark Mischief, a metal band consisting of inmates at the state’s Graterford maximum-security prison. She took her outrage to the state’s House of Representatives. Other crime victims complained as well, the Associated Press reports. State Rep. T.J. Rooney introduced a resolution, which the House unanimously passed on Tuesday, asking VH1 to donate any profits from the series to the state’s Office of the Victim Advocate.
Bill O’Reilly has devoted at least two episodes of ”The O’Reilly Factor” this week to the controversy, having invited Orlando, Rooney, and Schweiker to be guests on the show. On one show, he said Bissey ”should be doing hard labor, not playing the drums and having a good time.”
He called for the resignation of VH1 president Christina Norman and said, ”This situation makes the Ludacris-Pepsi controversy look like an episode of ‘Sesame Street.”’ In August, a day after the ”Factor” host criticized Pepsi for using as a pitchman a rapper whose lyrics O’Reilly said promote antisocial behavior, Pepsi received so many calls of complaint that it dropped Ludacris from its ads. Hinting that he wanted his viewers to give VH1 the same treatment, he gave out Norman’s email address and said, ”If that program airs on Friday night, that network will never, ever be forgiven by [me]. And I hope you feel the same way.”
VH1 said in a statement earlier this week that the point of the show was not to make killers into famous rockers. ”The purpose of the show is to show that music can have redemptive purposes in bad places,” the statement read. ”It’s not about promoting the inmate. This is not an ‘American Idol Behind Bars’ type of program.
Pennsylvania prison authorities said they welcomed the filmmakers when they came to Graterford in June. After all, ”Behind Bars” producer Arnold Shapiro was behind the acclaimed prison documentary ”Scared Straight.” (Of course, he’s also one of the producers of ”Big Brother,” so he knows how to wring entertainment from people confined in tight quarters.) ”We try to be sensitive to the victims,” prison spokesman Alan J. LeFebvre told the Chester Daily Local, a Pennsylvania newspaper. ”According to the production company, they were trying to show the contrast of how brutal prison can be with how the inmates can make efforts to be productive.”
On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker ordered the Department of Corrections to issue media advisories in order to warn victims and their families when offenders were to appear on TV. ”We need to ensure that crime victims are never again caught off-guard by turning on their televisions and unexpectedly seeing the inmate who has caused them so much pain,” AP quotes Schweiker as saying.
Meanwhile, VH1 has yet to say whether or not it will abide by the Pennsylvania legislature’s request and give away its profits from the show. Nor has it responded to O’Reilly’s call to cancel the show or face a boycott. At press time, the show was still scheduled to premiere on Friday at 10 p.m. ET, and to air on successive Fridays in the same time slot. When asked by EW.com to comment on the protests, VH1 responded with a prepared statement urging viewers to watch the show before criticizing it. ”’Music Behind Bars’ is a documentary that examines prison music programs from across the nation,” the statement read. ”The inmates profiled in this documentary have been convicted of serious crimes. We think that once the first episode of the series has aired, people will see for themselves that it in no way glorifies prison life or these programs.”