Participants have included deadbeat dads and porn actors. Some say standards are needed.
Anyone spot a pattern?
A family that has appeared twice on a reality-TV series and had aspirations for another concocts a tale about a balloon that has allegedly carried off their 6-year-old son. Infamy ensues.
A 32-year-old man who has appeared on two reality shows is suspected of killing his onetime wife, dismembering her body, and fleeing the country. Infamy ensues before the suspect kills himself.
A couple under consideration for the Washington version of a popular reality show bamboozle their way into a state dinner at the White House, then brag about it on Facebook. Infamy ensues.
It's hardly news that reality programs seek people who have what might charitably be described as larger-than-life personalities. No one wants to watch ordinary people doing mundane things. From Survivor
to Flavor of Love
, from Richard Hatch to Omarosa, the genre is sustained by the clash of colorful individuals in artificially extreme circumstances. Outrageous behavior isn't just a prerequisite, it's the goal.
In recent years, reality-show participants have been drawn, sometimes without producers' knowledge, from among those who have committed assaults, appeared in porn films, been tax cheats and deadbeat dads. Many have admitted they have psychological issues (if not beforehand). Other shows, such as A&E's Hoarders
, use instability as their premise.
Dozens of people who have appeared on reality shows found their experiences so emotionally disfiguring that they sought counseling
. A handful committed suicide.
But the shocking, very real incidents cited above raise new questions about what kinds of people reality shows are recruiting, and how far they're willing to go. Last week's incident, involving a Virginia couple, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, suggests the answer is right through the White House gates.
The Salahis apparently were driven by a desire to appear as participants on Real Housewives of D.C.
, the proposed Bravo spoiled-rich-ladies series. A crew from a local production company filmed their preparations for the evening. Bravo has so far declined to say whether it will use the footage or cast the Salahis on the show - an odd silence given the uproar about the incident.
Because of legal issues, producers are often loath to accept responsibility for the on- or off-camera behavior of those featured on their shows.
In August, for example, VH1 canceled two programs that featured Ryan Jenkins, the Canadian suspected of killing his onetime wife in California before fleeing to Canada and taking his own life. The cable network issued a statement calling one of Jenkins' shows "an outside production, produced and owned" by an independent company. VH1 declined to comment for this article.
Similarly, Fox and CBS defended their screening methods after two high-profile fiascoes. Fox's background checks missed a couple of pertinent facts about "multimillionaire" Rick Rockwell when it aired the reality special Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?
in 2000. As it happened, he wasn't quite a multimillionaire, and Fox said it had no idea an ex-girlfriend had filed a restraining order against him. In 2001, on the CBS summer reality program Big Brother
, contestant Justin Sebik was booted after holding a knife to the throat of a female housemate. CBS accepted no responsibility, but the network admitted it had missed Sebik's arrest record, which included theft and assault charges.
Exploitation of "psychologically damaged" people on TV predates reality programs, says Jamie Huysman, a Miami psychologist and social worker. Tabloid talk shows such as Geraldo!
and Jerry Springer
pioneered "confrontation" TV in the 1990s, pitting straying lovers against each other or crime victims against perpetrators. Maury Povich took the concept one step further by having people face their phobias on camera.
The genre may have peaked, or reached its nadir, with the slaying of a gay man who had confessed his "secret crush" on a friend during The Jenny Jones Show
in 1995. The friend, who had a history of mental illness and alcohol abuse, eventually was convicted of second-degree murder.
"I call them 'disposable people' because they're used to get ratings and commercials and then discarded," says Huysman, who has treated dozens of former reality-show participants and consulted with producers about their pre- and post-screening methods. "They're easy to manipulate and coerce. [Producers] give them money and a trip to New York City, but the TV camera is the greatest seducer. . . . It offers everyone a different dream. It's like a heroin shot for those who are living lives of despair."
He suggests that producers address the problem by adopting standards that address what happens to participants before, during, and after they appear on camera.
But Huysman says TV producers aren't the only ones who need to step up. Advertisers could stop sponsoring programs if they wanted to, he says, and viewers could turn away, too. "Even if you're not watching, we all have to realize we're part of this," he says. "We created this couple [the Salahis], and this couple is us. The Heenes [of balloon fame] - they're us. . . . Someone has to say, 'Stop the world - I want to get off.' "
Yul Kwon, a Federal Communications Commission lawyer who won the 2006 version of Survivor
, says he's tried to keep in mind why he went on the program in the first place. He says he wanted to be a positive role model for Asian Americans and use whatever fame came from the show to promote his charitable causes. "I didn't want the experience to define me. When I die, I don't want my tombstone to read that the biggest thing he ever did was to be on a reality show."