John Stahl, Peter Entz and John Waldner, bishops for the three sects encompassing the roughly 50,000 Hutterites and 500 colonies in North America, said in a joint statement they are "deeply disappointed" in National Geographic Channel's "American Colony: Meet the Hutterites."
The 10-part series that began airing last month promised a rare inside look at Hutterite colony life, focusing on the King Ranch Colony.
"What was promised by the producers to be a 'factual documentary' is, in fact, a distorted and exploitative version of Hutterite life," the bishops said, one that paints all Hutterites in a "negative and inaccurate way."
The bishops accused producers of contriving scenes and dialogue in a "make believe" portrayal of "how we live and the spiritual beliefs we cherish."
David Lyle, National Geographic Channel's CEO, vigorously defended the channel and the series.
"This is a declaration of war from the Hutterite elders against the National Geographic Society, calling into account our fairness," Lyle said. "We absolutely are fairly representing the King community."
The bishops' criticisms reflect "the very tensions that are at the core of this story," he said, which he described as the conflict between Hutterite traditions and rules, and some colony members' efforts to remain devout while adapting to 21st-century society.
The Hutterites are Protestants similar to the Amish and Mennonites who live a life centered on their religion, but unlike the others, Hutterites live in German-speaking communes scattered across northern U.S. states and Canada.
The King Ranch Colony had declined comment before the series began airing and had no comment Thursday, according to Kristin Cole, a spokeswoman for the bishops.
"American Colony" producer Jeff Collins, who did not respond to a request for comment, said previously that the series would avoid such reality TV ploys as "feeding" lines to people to heighten the drama. He described the production as an ongoing "negotiation," with colony members querying the crew on how and what they were taping.
"American Colony" depicts members of the 59-member King Ranch commune, located more than 100 miles from Billings, Mont., as drinking alcoholic beverages and cursing. Some parents are shown questioning their faith's tenets, while a restless teenager flouts rules on dress and dating.
Hutterites are "a culture that 75 percent of Americans never have heard about. That should have been interesting enough," said Mary-Ann Kirkby, a member of the faith who lives in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and wrote the 2010 memoir, "I Am Hutterite."
"To then make them act completely out of character for your own ends shows a great lack of judgment and decency," said Kirkby, who said she's had detailed discussions with the bishops about the show and their concerns.
King Ranch is among about 50 colonies in Montana averaging roughly 100 people each, according to a 2010 state report. Hutterites also live in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Washington and Oregon.
EDITOR'S NOTE—Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org.