Paul Farhi on pop culture: Balloon boy, media stunts, dream up your own
Tuesday, October 20, 2009; 1:00 PM
Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi was online Tuesday, Oct. 20, at 1 p.m. ET to talk about the latest news and topical issues in the pop culture world of TV, radio, movies and trends.
Today: Let us now analyze ingenious (if unsavory) media stunts. Why was the Balloon Boy story such a can't-resist made-for TV event? We'll not only tell you the answer(s), but challenge you to dream up anything that might top it. Impossible, we say.
Paul Farhi: Greetings, all. Thanks for stopping by...Okay, enough with the moral outrage over Balloon Boy. Yes, the stunt--and it does appear to be a stunt--wasted public-safety resources, exploited a six-year-old and gave pathological attention seekers another 15 minutes of air time. All that is true, and all that has been said to death by now. What's also true is that this was a brilliant caper. Nothing in years compares to the Balloon Boy saga in terms of its sheer creative audacity, and its "success." It's not every day that someone dreams up a hoax that rivets the world's attention for a couple of hours. Several elements all had to come together exactly right to make the Balloon Boy "drama" into what it was. Here's my short list:
--The balloon. The good ship Jiffy Pop wasn't just any old gasbag. It was an exotic, fantastic, supremely telegenic oddity. Who could take their eyes off that thing?
--The kid. A perfect protagonist. The idea that a six-year-old had stowed away in that contraption (would-be physicists are debating whether such a thing was physically possible), was a Grimm's fairy tale of a story. The suspense/horror/fascination of it all! As any fan of "E.R." or Dakota Fanning's career knows, child endangerment is great for ratings.
--The story: Kid allegedly climbs aboard, unties balloon, Balloon takes off. Dad calls cops (and TV). "Wizard of Oz" comparisons ensue.
--The place. Colorado, the almost-Kansas (see "Wizard of Oz" above).
--The timing. Fall, when the colors are really lovely (great art direction for TV). Fall, when people are back at work and highly prepared to waste time watching a riveting faux drama on their office TV sets. Also, mid-afternoon on a bright, clear day. You couldn't do this at night, could you? No, you couldn't (it would mess up the pictures).
--The alleged perps. The couple supposedly behind this are former reality show contestants, which means they're pre-qualified as grasping, desperate-for-fame types. I give them a bit more credit. The dad, Richard Heene, was reportedly pitching reality-show ideas to our very own TLC network in Silver Spring, so he presumably knows a bit about what makes good camera time. In this case, he also understood...
--The gullibility of live TV. Like all great scammers, the Heenes knew that scam-ees are often eager participants in their own hoodwinking. In this case, it was two things: a) that TV needs pictures, and b) that TV doesn't ask too many questions if something seems sufficiently unusual or interesting. Remember the brief TV hysteria a few weeks ago over a supposed terrorist attack on the Potomac that turned out to be a routine Coast Guard drill? Same thing.
Put it all together, and you have the makings of a one-of-a-kind modern media spectacle. And it all went flawlessly until...Well, granted, the alleged perps didn't really think through their after-action plan. But there again, the story had a kind of satisfying cinematic arc. As in the movies, it's always one little overlooked detail--the kid talked!-- that trips up the perps.
But as I said, could you do any better? Go on, I dare you. Construct your own media-centric hoax. Best would-be scheme wins a big, big prize (I'll dream up something, I'm sure). Legal disclaimer: Fantasies involving bodily injury or major property damage will be disqualified and you will be arrested. Other than that, the sky (as Balloon Boy might say) is the limit.
On a totally unrelated note: A chatter last week criticized TV commercials that show white women as the victims of home break-ins, and identified the advertiser as the ADT home-security company. Nope. As ADT Security's PR chief, Bob Tucker, informed me subsequently, those ads are the work of Broadview, which was formerly known as Brinks.
Okay, let's go to the phones..
Radio Bart lives!: Paul, is Balloon Boy the final piece of evidence that there is no reality outside of television, that life has turned into a massive "reality" show?
Although I agree that the media overplayed the story, I don't pin the blame on the media itself. Instead I blame the apparent craving in our culture for cheap sources of emotional inspiration, almost like the narrator in the treacly Anne Murray song "A Little Good News." It's the flip side of the Jerry Springer Show phenomenon, where the audience gets a phony sense of moral superiority from jeering at "freaks" and villains. From a sociological standpoint, the Heenes could have made the hoax even better by having the boy allegedly die heroically, perhaps sacrificing his life to save a baby or a pet.
And where the hell was Sting in all of this? I was looking forward to hearing "We're Sending Our Love Up to the Balloon."
Paul Farhi: Well, first, no one died or even got hurt. All bets are/would be off in my admiration for a stunt if someone's well being is compromised. And this was not "reality TV." It was "news." The difference is admittedly disappearing, but "reality TV" is produced and scripted. "News" has greater credibility. Or at least it used to.
Woodbridge, Va.: I think it's fascinating that almost immediately everyone adopted the term "Balloon Boy." Do you know who in the media used it first? Since this entire farce has only lasted a few days, it should be possible to pinpoint it's origin.
Paul Farhi: I think I started hearing it in real time--as we watched those swirling helicopter shots of the Starship Jiffy Pop. Maybe I'm imagining this, but I could have sworn some producer (on CNN maybe?) threw the phrase up on screen in a Chyron. And come to think of it, "Balloon Boy" enhances the whole story, doesn't it?
Bowie, Md.: I'm saddened that a family raising kids considers getting on TV (more often) the most important part of their lives.
For every hour cable news devotes to this story, I want an hour about what some kid learned at the library today.
Paul Farhi: Well, unclear that it's the most important part of their lives. The family (or maybe just dad) seemed to have time to chase tornadoes and hunt for UFOs. And I'm no longer sure "wanting to be on TV" is such a sad ambition. It's a better hobby than, say, playing video games...
Construct your own media-centric hoax: How about we send some guy out to a busy intersection with a sign around his neck that says "I cheated on my wife. This is my punishment."
Paul Farhi: That was pretty good, too, wasn't it? Most of the dumb-dumb media ate it up, as is. Proud to say that The Post was skeptical about it from the get-go...
Toledo, Ohio: In my opinion, the jury is still out everywhere but in the media. This family has not been charged with anything. Guilty by media is not good enough. I think I'll wait for truth instead of fantasy.
Paul Farhi: I've argued this point (that it wasn't a hoax). I feel I am losing that argument. And I'm glad to lose it. It's so much better, and says so much more about us, as a hoax than as a random accident.
A tip for would be hoaxsters: Six-year-olds can't keep a secret. They get confused about when they're supposed to tell the truth, and when they're supposed to go with the fabricated story.
Paul Farhi: Right. Flaw in the plot. It's always something, isn't it? Did you happen to catch "The Bank Job," which was a pretty good recent caper movie. The semi-meticulous planning goes awry when....SPOILER ALERT...the "crooks" are overheard on their walkie-talkies by a ham-radio operator, who tips off the cops.
Alexandria, Va.: So was the Whitney Houston "wardrobe malfunction" staged or not? I think it was all one big publicity stunt.
Paul Farhi: If it was, it wasn't a very good one. I mean, breaking a strap on the back of a dress? Boring! It just looked clumsy.
Radio Bart Lives again: In my improved hoax, the boy wouldn't really die -- his heroic death would be as phony as the rest of the scenario.
Paul Farhi: Oh, interesting. FAKE death. But that would be hard to sustain. I mean, one of the things with great scams is that you've got to get in and get out without anyone knowing it was a scam. If the kid had "died," there would have to be a body. Too problematic.
"Balloon Boy" Was "Reality TV": The event and coverage was scripted, as you describe -- just not by the media outlets that carried it. Pretty brilliant, in a sick way, although I wonder when the next "scripted" event will be a fake Amber Alert.
Paul Farhi: Yeah, but again, that's kind of mundane. We need more angles! Can you work a dirigible into your scenario?
Baltimore, Md.: As I heard in an audio clip on radio, little Falcon Heene, when interviewed by Wolf Blitzer, said, "Who the hell is Wolf?" Nice, it's always cute when little kids curse on TV. Excellent, excellent parenting.
Paul Farhi: Yeah, but that's pretty funny, you gotta admit. Reminds me of the kids in "Talledega Nights."
Bowie, Md.: I don't really care what CNN and the other news networks cover or don't (I stay far away), but what upset me was the wall-to-wall balloon coverage on the Weather Channel of all places. Hey people, if I've tuned into the Weather Channel, I want the weather!
Paul Farhi: That's pretty wild. In fact, as I recall, CNN was doing weather cut-ins during its Balloon Boy coverage, with the weather guy showing the wind patterns over the plains and such. I'm telling you--Paddy Chayefsky could not have scripted this sort of thing any better.
Arlington, Va.: How much is that crazy dad damaging those poor kids in his pursuit of TV riches? He drags them along in his dangerous "storm chasing" then enlists them in this endeavor. Maybe some one more sane should be raising those children.
I am totally with the first questioner. I immediately thought of the episode where Bart is "stuck" down the well...or at least his radio is. A classic.
Paul Farhi: I don't know, and neither do you. I'll say this, though: Those kids probably are having a far more interesting childhood than about 99.9999 percent of kids on this planet.
Herndon, Va.: Mr. F: As a "balloon follow on," we increase the Post's revenues by putting you in a balloon in a try for a new altitude record, plus get a TV tie-in and WHAM, instant celebrity and $$$ galore (plus 10 percent for me for the concept)!
Paul Farhi: I like it! We could get sponsors, too. Of course, it wouldn't be me in the balloon but an incredibly lifelike simulation of me. Get me Pixar, stat!
Philadelphia, Pa.: Hi Paul -- You stole my thunder, LOL ""News" has greater credibility. Or at least it used to."
It seems as if the definition of 'news' is a moving target (ha, pun intended).
Obtaining news has become an effort in separating the wheat from the chaff...personally I find myself questioning top news organizations regarding merciless coverage of antics 'as the story unfolds'.
Honestly, did anyone actually believe this wasn't a stunt? Good grief, one only had to look at the contraption to understand it couldn't support the weight of a child, let alone a pet.
Are we really that gullible these days? Or just so over taxed (ha, pun intended again!) with the economy we're ready to believe in ANYthing else?
Paul Farhi: Well, I'll leave the journalism debate aside for a moment. But I've said it before, and I'll say it again: America is just the most damned entertaining country in the world. Does any place come close?
Who the hell is Wolf?: Falcon's just jealous that someone in the media has a cooler name than himself.
Paul Farhi: Yes, cool name. Not enough animal-oriented first names out there, if you ask me.
The Airless Cubicle: Ah, Paul! You have opened the door to admit one of my favorite theories, one which has gulled the billions over centuries:
Australia does not exist. It is a optical illusion.
Proofs: 1. Kangaroos are so obviously a made up animal, like a Snuffalufagus from Sesame Street. They're really deer with their antlers removed.
2. Aussie Rules football. Punch and kick football and kick each other wearing only what looks like a glorified basketball jersey and shorts? No real person does this. You only see short highlights of what is supposed to be "matches"; the real reason you don't see more is because the actors playing athletes are rolling on the ground laughing between takes.
3. Paul Hogan. 'Nuff said.
4. Olivia Newton-John. 'Nuff said.
5. The Seekers were supposed to be from "Australia;" they made most of their records in England.
6. The NASA picture from the Moon showing "Australia" shows no such thing; there is a fingerprint smudge on the film caused by careless handling.
Next Week: Why the Fourth of July is a Satanic Holiday.
Perhaps this isn't suitable for a reality series, but since Fox Reality TV is folding next year into a National Geographic channel, I could be the next Leonard Nimoy "In Search Of." Or "Mythbusters."
Paul Farhi: Wow! A continent-wide hoax. Pretty darn good, if true. Also, please look into the following: The moon "landing," "Chariots of the Gods," and the Obama "birthers." Possibly, also "Lou Dobbs."
Annapolis, Md.: American TV? I would have answered Japan with their game shows, except we now have Japanese game shows here.
Paul Farhi: Yes, but having spent a couple of weeks in Japan way back when, I can tell you that most of their TV shows aren't like their game shows. Heck, most of their game shows aren't like their game shows.
Alexandria, Va.: I do NOT work for the Washington Post, but I have to say that one of the best radio ads I have heard lately was for ... your newspaper!
The spot where the guy tells the girl that this coming Thursday is a special day, because the new Post Home/Local section premieres then (when she is expecting a more personal reason) made me laugh out loud.
Paul Farhi: Thanks. I'll pass that on to our ad folks. I sure hope they help us sell a few more papers and a few more ads.
For Balloon Boy Followers: As I am embarrassed to even know this, just thought I'd let your readers know that "Wife Swap" can be seen twice daily in the afternoons on Lifetime. My TV tells me the Heene episode is coming up next week; check your local listings. (Please forgive me for knowing this. It's really the only thing that tempts me while folding laundry.)
Paul Farhi: Great programming tip! It will be like watching the young Cassius Clay in the ring or Michael Jordan playing hoops in high school--you'll get to see genius in the making!
Arlington, Va.: The sad thing is that these Heene people will wind up with a reality show anyway. If MTV can think it's okay to air a show about briefly-sober DJ who tries to get junkies into rehab despite the fact that said DJ has already died of an overdose, there is a network out there that will think it's okay to try to make money off of people who see nothing wrong with wasting the taxpayers' money potentially putting others' lives at risk by wasting emergency responders' time on their own personal need for attention.
And re: The Weather Channel, Universal is slowly killing that network. It used to be my respite from shows like Today that make me want to stick needles in my eyes. Now they put Al Roker on and cover idiotic news and quasi-celebrities.
Paul Farhi: I don't think it's sad, actually. If you were a reality show producer and you didn't care about the moral overtones (and since we're talking about reality TV, we're safe in assuming that), who would you want producing your next show? I think I'd want the guy who set up one of the great TV scams of all time. The guy knows something about TV and has the track record to prove it!
Winchester, Va.: Someone mentioned The Weather Channel earlier. This morning about 8:30, TWC started scrolling an orange banner across the bottom of the screen. I expected some kind of serious alert, when it said "...the National Weather Service has canceled its frost alert. Temperatures are warming this morning."
Paul Farhi: Phew!...Well, actually, plant people (that is, people who like gardening, not people who are plants) are very concerned about frost, since it hurts the petunias and such. So that scroll might actually constitute real news...
If Austrailia doesn't exist: How do you explain Outback Steakhouse and wombats?
Paul Farhi: The caller makes an excellent point.
Southern Maryland: How about a game show hoax that plays to ethnic prejudices, where a bombastic Jewish man loses to a mild-mannered WASPish professor...wait, never mind.
Paul Farhi: Great movie/tv historical pull, So. Md.! How exactly did the "Quiz Show" scandal of the 1950s fall apart? Someone squawked, right?
America is just the most damned entertaining country in the world. Does any place come close? : Germany...any country that worships David Hasselhoff to the extent that Germany does wins an automatic 'entertaining country' award. Plus, the whole socks-n-sandals trend over there makes for some entertaining people watching.
Paul Farhi: Well, I think Beck's beer stomped that idea but good. Remember Beck's ad campaign of a year or so ago? It was about oxymorons, one of which was "German stand-up comics."
Nowhere: Does anyone remember the first reality shows, i.e. Beat the Clock, Truth or Consequences and Let's Make a Deal?
Also, Outback is a U.S. chain; there are no "Outback" restaurants in the make-believe Australia.
Paul Farhi: I remember all three shows (also "Bowling for Dollars"). But I'm not sure how those were the first reality shows. Wouldn't something like "Queen for a Day" and/or "This is Your Life" predate them, in a reality sort of way?
Just an idea: I think we could tie the child abduction story to a reality TV contest show. Imagine it. Child walking to school, pulled into a van. Celebs are paired up to search. With all that hiking around, maybe they can lose weight while they're at it. In the end, the winning celebs discover that the child wasn't really abducted; he/she was hiding out with Larry King. Geraldo can open the crypt and Oprah can interview everyone.
Paul Farhi: If you can work in parts for Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag, I think we could do some business.
The Bank Job: Great movie, and underrated, I think, but you know it was based on a true story, right? There really were a caper, sought-after documents, and ham radio operator.
Paul Farhi: Yes, based on the Profumo scandal of the early 1960s. I was aware of the Profumo angle, but not of the bank break-in, which is/was really, really crazy. And made for an excellent movie.
TWC again: But if there was a FROST WARNING last night, the plant people should have brought their beauties inside or covered 'em up. Are they all waiting in front of the TV at 8:30 on a beautiful sunny morning wondering if the temps will actually rise and for the warning to be officially canceled? Ay caramba.
Paul Farhi: Now that you put it that way, um, yeah, that makes no sense. This may explain why my plants seem to die the first time the temperatures go below 71 degrees...
Construct your own media-centric hoax: Nominating Sarah Palin for vice president?
Paul Farhi: Yeah, how'd that one turn out?
Beck's: I remember when Lowenbrau was the only imported beer you could buy. Whatever happened to it?
Paul Farhi: Lowenbrau: Not imported! Made by Miller (under license from the original German brewery). Maybe you're thinking of Heineken, which is imported...
washingtonpost.com: Lowenbrau Beer Commercial (1981)
Alexandria, Va.: How apt was it that a kid named "FALCON" supposedly flew off in a balloon?!
Paul Farhi: Maybe that was the inspiration for the whole stunt. Dad says, "Falcon...Falcon...what would a boy named Falcon do?" [Cut to: animated graphic of a light bulb going on over Dad's head]....
TWC again again: Sorry, but I disagree. They're supposed to be covering the weather, which means reporting alerts and warnings, as well as cancellation of same. They're not the ones who determined what time the warning got canceled, they just reported it after the National Weather Service released it.
Paul Farhi: Weather Channel fans are a passionate bunch, aren't they?
Outback in Outback: Outback did begin as a U.S. chain, in Tampa. There are currently four Outback Steakhouses in New South Wales, the state Sydney is located in.
Paul Farhi: Here's my question about Outback: Is that really an authentic Australian accent that you hear on the voiceovers of the TV commercials? Or is that some ad agency's idea of what Americans THINK an Aussie accent sounds like? Sounds exaggerated to me...
Early reality show: Major Bowes (talent show). One of his most famous moppet contestants, Bubbles Silverman, grew up to become the fabulous Beverly Sills!
Paul Farhi: Good one! And "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts," too.
Albany, N.Y.: My hoax idea is to take some of the elements you've correctly identified and combine it with the runaway bride story. On one beautiful fall afternoon, let's have a distraught mother and father report that their daughter has been kidnapped by polygamists to participate in a forced marriage on the grounds of an isolated estate. The polygamists hire a lawyer who continually tells the sheriff that he has no jurisdiction on the property. TV cameras can set up for long shots but can't get too close. The beautiful young woman (whose heartbreakingly lovely high school graduation photo can be shown over and over again) can be seen from time to time as she is dragged from building to building, always with some changes (a haircut, a special garment, etc.). Because it's polygamy, the nets can show talking heads discussing various polygamists and accused-polygamist religions; also interviews with the cast and creators of "Big Love." A cadre of family members can try to storm the estate but they are driven off by rifle fire (it's blanks, but they sell it) and by smoke dropped from a helicopter. The bride tries to escape, and for a few minutes we think she'll make it -- but no, she is captured and brought back to the compound. The ceremony is completed and she is whisked away in that helicopter, in the general direction of Canada.
Of course the hoax is going to go bust at some point. They all go bust. (By the way: "The Bank Job" is based on a real-life caper where the same basic stuff happened, including the ham radio guy.)
Paul Farhi: I think we have a winner! We forgot the runaway bride hoax element, which was huge with the female demographic a few years ago. Stand by for delivery of a reality-show development deal with a network to be named later, Albany...
Tonight, let it be Lowenbrau: Do they even make Lowenbrau anymore?
Paul Farhi: The magic Wikipedia says yes. In fact, since 2002, it HAS been imported from Germany (okay, I was wrong, sort of--it was domestically made for a few decades before that).
Is that really an authentic Australian accent that you hear on the voiceovers of the TV commercials?: No. And it's not authentic Australian cuisine either.
Paul Farhi: Really? Very disappointing. I thought Bloomin' Onions were a national dish...
Outback: Considering that one of its ads featured a pre-"Flight of the Conchords" Jemaine Clement, who is from New Zealand, I call shenanigans.
(By the way, "Flight" has a hilarious running joke about a bitter rivalry between New Zealanders and Australians, who are portrayed as smug and terrible people.)
Paul Farhi: Oh, another strong pull! I will have to scour YouTube for that Jemaine sighting...And, yes, that FOTC gag is very funny.
Interesting Childhoods: That's a great endorsement. Things were pretty "interesting" in the Jackson family house, too. How'd that turn out?
Paul Farhi: Well, Michael Jackson did make allegations of child abuse against his father. But there is no record of child abuse in the Heene family. Sure, dad has some strange ideas, but that doesn't make him abusive. I'll stand by "interesting childhood" until shown otherwise.
Balmer, Mate: I have a friend who's Australian and he says that whoever does the voiceover for the Outback commercials is a New Zealander.
Paul Farhi: Kinda scandalous, no? Would we let a Canadian do the voiceovers for McDonald's? I don't think so...Well, actually, I do...
Not a hoax: I still vividly recall the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage-taking situation (and the brilliant coverage by Jim McKay, Peter Jennings and ABC) -- a macabre reality show that ended so, so badly.
Paul Farhi: Yes, but that's a pretty interesting parallel. Those events did not take place on TV instantaneously. There was a very long period--hours and hours--before ABC was able to go live. Obviously, tragically, that was not a hoax. And in a slower-paced world, the network had plenty of time to verify that what it was witnessing was real...
Hope for the newspaper industry?: Report: Majority Of Newspapers Now Purchased By Kidnappers To Prove Date (The Onion, Oct. 14)
Paul Farhi: Pretty hilarious!
Before there was radio or TV...: ...there were some of the tawdrier newspapers whose own "reality shows" were the "agony aunts" and yellow journalism. Oh, wait, some of those still exist, both in dead-tree and online incarnations!
Paul Farhi: A totally valid point. "Sensationalism" has a long history in the media, dating back to the founding of the country. We're human--we've always been fascinated by extremes of human behavior, even if the behavior, as reported, may not have actually happened.
Jemaine: Here ya go: Jemaine Clement @ Outback Steakhouse (YouTube)
There were a bunch of ads; I think YouTube will point you to the others. They were in heavy rotation, and he has a distinctive look, so I had no idea who he was but immediately recognized him when FOTC came along. (Also, the movie "Eagle vs. Shark" -- very quirky.)
Paul Farhi: Thanks. You win today's public service award!
My Aussie Friend: Says that the Outback voiceover bloke is a New Zealander. Oh, and that Foster's isn't "Australian for beer," either.
Paul Farhi: Stop! You're blowing my whole media-created concept of Australia and Australians. Next thing you're gonna tell me is that Elle MacPherson really isn't very pretty.
On a serious note: What really sucks about this whole thing is I'm sure the dad is finding some way to make sure the boy knows this is all his fault."We had the hoax going well, all set to get us on another show, and you screwed up by telling the truth."
The kids in that family must be totally messed up.
Paul Farhi: Again, we're guessing here and assuming the worst. It could be that those kids are having an absolutely marvelous time.
Reality in the USA: I am in love with the area I live in (Southern Cal)and I am also a reality show addict. There is something interesting about watching complete jerks act the way they would when you passed by them while walking your dog around the block. My roommate is Japanese and essentially zones out when I put these shows on. Does that make him smarter than me? I think reality is what you make of it.
Paul Farhi: Considering that SoCal seems to have an endless supply of reality-show participants/contestants, why would you need to watch any of these shows? Aren't these people your neighbors?
Redskins feed: What is up with the crappy reception? Is everyone getting the same weird sound cut-outs and fuzzy picture on Fox, and then a total loss of feed with CBS that I am? Or does it have something to do with DirectTV? It's painful enough watching the games this year without having to watch with the sound lagging the picture by a couple seconds and blinking in and out every 15 seconds.
Paul Farhi: Not you. That's happened to everyone during Redskins games, two weeks in a row, and on two different networks (CBS and Fox). Completely separate events, but it does make you a little paranoid (do the TV gods hate the Redskins)?
Paul Farhi: Folks, this has been a lot of fun, and I'd better wrap up before my bosses notice. Thanks for comin' by; let's have a second date in a week. We should have new scandals and hoaxes to hash out then. So, until next week, as always, regards to all!...Paul.
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