Reality TV attracts, um, larger-than-life characters

By Paul Farhi
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Anyone spot a pattern here?

-- A family that has appeared twice on a reality-TV series and had aspirations for another concocts a story about a runaway balloon that has allegedly carried off their 6-year-old son. International infamy ensues.

-- A 32-year-old man who had appeared on two reality shows, is suspected of killing his onetime wife, dismembering her body and fleeing the country. International 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 their Facebook pages. International infamy (and possible criminal charges) ensue.

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 a TV show about ordinary people doing mundane things. From "Survivor" to "Flavor of Love," from Richard Hatch to Omarosa, the genre has long been 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 the 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, though not usually beforehand. Other shows such as A&E's "Hoarders" use mental imbalance as their premise.

Dozens of people who have appeared on reality shows found their TV experiences so emotionally disfiguring that they sought counseling afterward. A handful have committed suicide.

But the shocking and 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 named Tareq and Michaele Salahi, suggests the answer is right up to and through the gates of the White House itself.

The Salahis appeared to have encouraged by a desire to appear as participants on "Real Housewives of D.C.," the proposed local version of the Bravo cable network's spoiled-rich-ladies reality series. A crew from a local production company followed the couple and filmed their preparations for the evening. Bravo has so far declined to say whether it will air the footage, or cast the Salahis on the show, an odd silence given the uproar about the incident.

Because of the legal issues involved, producers are often loath to accept any responsibility for the on- or off-camera behavior of those featured on their programs.

In August, for example, VH1 canceled two programs that featured Ryan Jenkins, the Canadian suspected of killing his onetime wife in Southern California before fleeing to Canada and taking his own life. The cable network issued a terse statement at the time, calling one of Jenkins's shows "an outside production, produced and owned" by an independent production company. VH1 declined to comment for this article.

Similarly, Fox and CBS defended their screening methods after two high-profile fiascos. 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, Rockwell wasn't quite a multimillionaire, and Fox said it had no idea that Rockwell was the subject of a restraining order filed by an ex-girlfriend who had alleged domestic battery. A year later, in 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 admitted it missed Sebik's arrest record, which included theft and assault charges.

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