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Reality TV attracts, um, larger-than-life characters
Recent cases spotlight recruitment issues

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.

The 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. On his show, 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 his friend during "The Jenny Jones Show" in 1995. The friend, who had a history of mental illness and alcohol abuse, was eventually 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 in the world. It offers everyone a different dream. It's like a heroin shot for those who are living lives of despair."

Huysman suggests that producers address the problem before the next scandal by adopting a code of standards that would 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 the 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 government lawyer who won the 2006 version of "Survivor," says appearing on a reality show can distort even the most balanced individual's self-image and self-esteem.

"I think people who go on those shows are borderline normal to begin with," he says, laughing. "If you get positive feedback from it, it can go to your head. But when that dies down, you're left with an empty hole in your life. I have a pretty clear sense of myself and tried to take it for what it was. I looked at it as a brief moment in the sun."

Kwon, who now works for the Federal Communications Commission, 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 to 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."

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