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Huckleberry TV

October 08, 2006|Dan Neil

I've got to make this quick: I'm missing "The Big Joe Polka Show."

In the vastly weird and largely uncharted realm of 500-channel cable and satellite, there are huge swaths of programming that never reach beyond their narrowcast audience. I find

I'm spending a lot of time lately exploring this borderline of what can only be called unpopular culture: the 24-hour knife show; unsparingly dull stretches of control-room coverage on NASA TV; "Xena: Warrior Princess," which plays at 6 a.m. on the Logo channel. It's a curious source of pleasure to have my morning coffee with 100,000 lesbians.

I am, I suppose, a programming voyeur, or lurker, loitering around shows that are clearly not aimed at me or mine. I'd be embarrassed to tell you how much I know about this year's points chase in professional tractor pulling. Vietnamese soap operas, University of Tennessee football. I've got to hand it to me: I'm eclectic.

My most recent discovery is RFD-TV, which bills itself without irony as "Rural America's Most Important Network." ("RFD," by the way, stands for "Rural Free Delivery.") Launched in 2000 on cable and satellite services, the Nashville-based RFD-TV is a 24-hour channel devoted to the "needs and interests of rural America and agriculture." And how.

Should you ever tire of the slickly packaged, compulsively hip and cynically commercial feel of televised entertainment, RFD-TV will feel like a corny oasis. With titles such as "I Love Toy Trains," "Little Britches Rodeo" and "Quilt in a Day," RFD-TV's lineup--much of it recycled from regional public television stations around the country--has the feel of chaste, checked-gingham separateness, a moral and mental landscape where Jesus is American, sex is confined to barnyard breeding and temptation is a pie cooling in the window.

To get a sense of the refuge RFD-TV offers, just read the viewer mail, which the channel runs as bumpers between shows. "It's so clean and decent I can't believe my eyes," one viewer gushes, rather sadly. It's a reminder that, despite Christian novels to the contrary, godly people are the ones feeling left behind.

And yet, at times, I suspect the channel is pulling my cynical urban leg. The channel's program guide is running a "Name the Puppies" contest. Gee, I wonder what the winner gets? A puppy?

RFD-TV's pervasive innocence has its own aesthetic. Most of these programs are no-budget, one-camera productions, with minimal editing, sound or music. I watched "Dennis Reis Universal Horsemanship," in which the star--a riding instructor, naturally--taught his horse a complicated reverse maneuver in a dead-silent training ring. If there was an edit during all this, I didn't see it. Of course, I might have fallen asleep, so soporific is the effect. Technically, this is anti-TV.

"It's supposed to be simple," says Meredith Hodges, the host of "Training Mules and Donkeys," a show that itself wastes no cleverness in the title. "We want it to have an educational feel and not a commercial feel." Inevitably, on RFD-TV, "values" refers to "family" and not "production."

I called Hodges--the daughter of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz--because hers was the first show I happened to see on the channel. She was training a mule in dressage, which I thought was, you know, kind of funny. She saw no humor it. "Mules are stronger, smarter, quicker to learn, easier to train" than horses, she said sternly. I asked her if she had ever heard the phrase, "a mule in horse harness." She hadn't.

It's possible Hodges was feeling defensive. Rural America itself has been under siege for the last 50 years, a time of demographic transformation during which America went from a largely agrarian populace to an overwhelmingly urban citizenry. In the face of massive corporate consolidation of agriculture (now, properly, agribusiness) the small family farm as an economic entity is endangered. The irony is that, even as the rural culture has been mythologized and celebrated--in everything from "The Dukes of Hazzard" to NASCAR--the reality is, it's a dying civilization. To take but one troubling measure, the proportion of farmers age 55 and over rose from 37% in 1954 to 61% in 1997.

Knowing all that, RFD-TV plays like the poignant cultural echo of a previous America. Indeed, much of the channel's music programming dates back decades: "The Porter Wagoner Show," "The Wilburn Brothers Show," "Gospel Singing Jubilee," all shows that came out of Nashville in the 1960s and '70s.

RFD-TV fills me with one feeling most of all: envy. Like a lot of future-haunted urbanites, I'm wondering where I'll be when it all goes to hell. I would do just about anything to have a little ranch off the grid, with goats and a garden and a toy train in the barn. And that makes the guileless RFD-TV strangely hip, in a must-have, aspirational way.

I might even get me a dressage mule.

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