Homeland security becomes reality TV

LOS ANGELES -- Ratings champion "American Idol" will face serious competition when it returns next month: the Department of Homeland Security.

"Homeland Security USA," an ABC reality series debuting Jan. 6, tracks the daily efforts of the federal workers responsible for safeguarding the nation's airports, borders, waters and anyplace else threats might arise.

While viewers see the mechanics of agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Transportation Security Administration, absent is discussion of such hot-button issues as post-Sept. 11 security programs or immigration policies. That's by design, said series executive producer Arnold Shapiro, whose credits include "Rescue 911" and "Big Brother."

"It doesn't have a political point of view," Shapiro said. "It's not meant to show the (department) higher-ups .... just the average men and women on the front lines protecting our country from various things illegal and dangerous."

"Homeland Security USA" has a week to win viewers before it has to face Fox's hit singing contest, back Jan. 13.

The ABC series, filmed with the department's cooperation, is a virtual travelogue in the first episode as it skips from border crossings at Blaine, Wash., and San Ysidro, Calif., to Los Angeles International Airport to a mail processing plant.

Turns out even mail has dramatic possibilities, as sharp-eyed officers pry open toys containing black-market prescription drugs and uncover an exotic and illicit food item: barbecued bats from Thailand.

The show mixes the offbeat and the serious, including drug smugglers, people trying to enter the country with doctored papers and a woman who's been shoved under a car seat in a painful, failed effort to slip into the country.

Not all goes the department's way in the 13 episodes. In one scene, guns are drawn against a man trying to drive across the U.S.-Mexico border with his family, terrifying his wife and young children, until agents discover it's a case of mistaken identity.

Shapiro says that he retained control over the show's creative content. The department prescreened episodes and could ask for deletion of elements that would have revealed law-enforcement strategies, infringed on personal rights or jeopardized pending legal cases.

The series is based on Australia's popular "Border Security," which was optioned by ABC. "Homeland Security USA" is intended as entertainment without a political point of view, said Vicki Dummer, ABC's executive in charge of alternative series.

The department saw the show "as a great opportunity to help the American public understand what their government does and what the Department of Homeland Security, the youngest department, does," said department spokesman Ed Fox.

But "Homeland Security USA" has provoked debate sight unseen. A Facebook page opposing the series drew more than 500 postings within its first few days. Many were negative, including denunciations of the show as government propaganda.

The page was created by Tina Shull, a graduate student in history at the University of California, Irvine, whose critical view of Homeland Security was shaped in part by the detention and deportation of her Albanian husband after he was refused political asylum.

"My biggest fear about the show is it's simplifying a very complex range of duties that DHS takes on. ... It's making light of a very serious, very controversial issue in our society today," said Shull. She wants ABC to reconsider airing it.

Shapiro is adamant in his defense of "Homeland Security USA."

"I don't see how actually and factually documenting something that happens before our eyes, and editing it in a factual way - in other words, not manipulatively, can be considered propaganda," he said.

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