Given that network talent typically goes through rigorous background checks, how could this occur more than once? Reality TV has grappled with this since its inception: When you showcase real people, you get very real problems – especially on channels that feature unusual families or personalities. It’s not just Discovery shows: There’s a wide range of disturbing issues in reality TV history. VH1’s dating show “Megan Wants a Millionaire” was yanked off the air when a contestant was suspected in the murder of his ex-wife. CBS’s “Big Brother” kicked off a contestant for holding a knife to another person’s throat on camera.
Certain industry insiders caution against blaming the network or production companies for allowing these cast members on air in the first place, pointing out there’s only so much they can prevent. Others say that some vetting processes are too lenient, and that potential reality stars will hide damaging pasts in order to get their shot on TV. Then there’s the fact when it comes to background checks, laws can limit what investigators are even allowed to uncover and report to the networks in the first place.
When a Josh Duggar situation happens, in which a 2006 police report detailed accusations that he molested several underage girls when he was a teenager, the natural question becomes when TLC knew about the allegations — though his name was redacted, In Touch Weekly and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette both reported Duggar was the suspect. The show didn’t start filming until 2008. (TLC declined to comment or answer questions for this story.)
Brant Pinvidic, a reality TV producer and former TLC executive, says when a show falls apart, it’s often easy in hindsight to think the network or a production company behind the show should have caught every red flag.
“The networks take an amazing amount of due diligence to background check everybody. They take an extraordinary amount of precaution…and Discovery in particular is actually one of the most aggressive [networks] in weeding out background issues,” Pinvidic said. “It’s a really unfortunate bar to be held to: That you’re responsible for every element of someone’s personal life because you’re documenting their life. It’s almost impossible.”
Discovery Communications and the production companies for “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” (Authentic Entertainment) and “Sons of Guns” (Jupiter Entertainment) also declined to comment; Figure 8 Productions, which produces “19 Kids and Counting,” did not respond to multiple requests.
Pinvidic, who helped develop “Jon & Kate Plus 8” for TLC, said all potential reality stars go through a vetting process, complete with psychological and medical tests. A network will pass on a show if there are any signs of trouble.
“Even the slightest twinge of issues, a show never makes it,” he said. “It has to be pretty squeaky clean. You have all of your ducks in a row.”
So how does a network or production company miss a potentially huge issue? Los Angeles-based investigator Edward Myers has vetted thousands of reality TV candidates over the last 15 years. Background checks for reality show subjects, he cautions, are a lot more complicated than many people realize.
“It’s quite a process, and I can see how someone might wonder, ‘How did they miss that?’” Myers said. “The reality is that, first, not all records are discoverable to investigators, no matter how hard they look. And even if one is accessible, in some situations, it may not be legally permissible to report.”
For example, if a potential reality star is considered an “employee” of the network or production company, federal labor law limits the reporting of arrests that did not result in convictions in the past seven years. State laws get even more convoluted: In California, when investigators look into someone’s criminal history, they are only allowed to tell networks about convictions in the last seven years, but not arrests and police reports.
Even if the candidate for the show is not considered an “employee” and those limitations don’t apply, the investigative process “is still imperfect and challenging,” Myers said. (Discovery and TLC would not answer questions about whether they consider reality show cast members employees.)
Myers, who did not work on “19 Kids and Counting,” emphasizes that records have to be “discoverable” at all. Even if TLC was given a tip about Josh Duggar — such as when Oprah Winfrey reportedly canceled an episode with the family after her show received an e-mail about the molestation accusations, which triggered an Arkansas police investigation in 2006 — police may not give that information to background investigators.
Then there’s the obvious: People lie all the time, especially people who want to be TV stars.
“If a person self-discloses they were investigated, arrested, or had other similar contacts with the police that never resulted in a court appearance, one can make an effort to see if the matter is discoverable through the police department,” Myers said. “Invariably, candidates don’t like to give us those things.”
Casting directors, meanwhile, feel like they’ve seen every trick in the book. “If people want to be on TV bad enough, they will manage to suppress their secrets,” said Kristi Russell, president of Metal Flowers Media.
Russell added that the pressure has increased on some smaller production companies forced to shell out money for initial background checks – in earlier years of reality TV, the network would foot the bill. Saving money could inspire some to cut corners, Russell said, but that many would never risk it.
“For me, as a casting company trying to stay in the game…we are aggressive about our background checks,” Russell said. “We don’t leave any stones unturned, for the very reasons that are so prevalent in the media right now.”
As for Discovery Communications specifically, former TLC executive Brant Pinvidic reiterates there’s no way that, for example, the network knew anything about the Josh Duggar allegations.
“I would bet anything that there is no possibility Discovery had any knowledge of this whatsoever. If there was even remotely talk of this, the show would have never gone on the air,” Pinvidic said. “It’s a big show, but it makes a tiny percentage of overall Discovery and TLC’s [revenue]. They wouldn’t risk this kind of publicity.”