commentary (2006-13)

Knoxville’s in, but I failed the focus test

Reality Bites

by Matt Edens

As a handful of folks have whispered, there’s a conspiracy afoot downtown. I should know, I’ve been an integral part of it for the past few years, selling my soul for the sake of cold, hard cash. But I say no more. It’s time to reveal the man behind it all (or actually several high-powered men and women, myriad assistants and a massive amount of focus-group machinery, all 2,000 miles away).

Recall, several years ago, when the ill-fated Worsham/Watkins downtown redevelopment proposal, with its glittering visions of street-spanning “shoppertainment” malls, skyline altering skyscrapers and enormous glassed-in enclosures, collapsed seemingly under the weight of its own grandiosity? You may even remember the subsequent, short-lived proposals for Renaissance Knoxville, Universe Knoxville and Johnny Knoxville (although the last, transforming the World’s Fair Park into an attraction where street punk performers delighted crowds by lighting their own farts and kicking one another in the ‘nads, never made it out of the Superchamber’s destination-attraction subcommittee).  Conventional wisdom is that each of these ideas imploded due to its own lack of merit, and the massive amount of public and private money required to bring any of them to fruition. But in truth, each of these promising proposals was quietly shelved to make way for an idea so revolutionary that its secrets could scarcely be revealed—until now.

Downtown Knoxville’s destiny was forever altered late one night in 1999 when a high-powered Hollywood producer (or else a D-girl intern in his office; versions of the story vary) caught a rerun of The Truman Show on cable. Taking the movie’s high-concept premise as its cue, a pitch was developed for a similar reality series—albeit one that, after the first few focus groups with the network, was geared to a to a younger, more metrosexual demographic to better woo potential advertisers. So, rather than Truman’s cutesy-quaint village (actually the prototype New Urbanist planned community of Seaside, Fla.) the network went shopping for a suitably upscale, urban location.

The producers weighed several options—a Hollywood backlot, a purpose-built downtown or even taking total control of several blocks of mid-town Manhattan (Giuliani was reportedly receptive to the idea, but Bloomberg backed out. It’s rumored that Disney, anxious to protect the Mouse’s Times Square turf, killed the deal). Eventually, Knoxville came to their attention, via a trade piece in Variety regarding HGTV—prior to that none of the producers had ever heard of us, much less that anyone here actually made television shows.

Terms were offered, and the 12 white guys who run things here quickly signed on, stars in their eyes. Soon the transformation of downtown Knoxville into a tightly controlled setting for a reality television series began, as buildings were gutted, rewired and rearranged to accommodate a vast array of hidden cameras. The construction work, in order to keep the plans secret, was carried out by a series of front companies disguised as real estate developers. (I mean, really, haven’t you ever wondered why the guys building lofts downtown were relative unknowns five years ago?) Oh, and don’t let the propaganda about the dilapidated condition of downtown’s buildings fool you; if not for the TV show, downtown could have been “redeveloped” with a few coats of paint, its lofts easily affordable to artists, community activists and other cool people.

The TV producers also secretly purchased Metro Pulse , making the paper an integral part of pre-production. Jack Neely, for instance, was charged with crafting a suitably quirky backstory. (Rejecting “Knoxville” as too, well, Knoxville to appeal to the targeted demographic, it was decided early on to re-write Knoxville as a fictional mid-American city. At press time, new names for the town are still being focus-grouped.)

Me, I handled recruitment, steering unsuspecting new condo owners toward TV stardom. (Check the fine print of your sales contract or lease agreement.) A respected L.A. casting agency, however, handled the extensive cast of extras, carefully screening and auditioning each one for “authenticity” and audience appeal and quietly “recasting” a whole range of supporting roles: from the homeless to the highest levels of city government.

That’s why I decided to come clean. Just weeks before the first episode starts production, I received notice that I’d been recast (apparently I didn’t test well with the crucial 20-to-35 female demographic). Soon a better-looking, better-dressed and more articulate actor will assume my role. I hear he once had a sitcom on the WB.