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A reality check for TV series producers

Questionable behavior of some wannabe stars has the reality TV industry rethinking its vetting processes.

December 11, 2009|By Matea Gold and Scott Collins
  • Michaele Salahi allegedly crashed a White House state dinner with her husband, Tareq. They were hoping to get cast on Bravo's upcoming reality show "The Real Housewives of D.C."
Michaele Salahi allegedly crashed a White House state dinner with her husband,… (Mark Wilson / Getty Images )

Reporting from Los Angeles and New York — Michaele and Tareq Salahi were a reality TV producer's dream. Until they became a nightmare.

As aspiring cast members of the upcoming Bravo show "The Real Housewives of D.C.," the Virginia couple portrayed themselves as a high-flying duo that could offer a window into Washington's power set. But their brazen crashing of a White House state dinner last month reduced them to attention-craving caricatures, triggering a congressional investigation into security at the executive mansion along the way.

Now their questionable behavior -- along with the exploits of "balloon boy" and other recent high-profile misadventures of reality TV participants -- is prompting a bout of anxious misgivings among the purveyors of the popular genre.

"It's clearly something everyone is worried about and is trying to deal with," said Nancy Dubuc, who oversaw the development of shows like "Growing Up Gotti" at A&E and now runs the cable network History, where she launched programs like "Ice Road Truckers." "There's a lot of quiet chatter in the industry of, 'Hey, let's look at this before it becomes a bigger issue.' I would hope that people are giving some serious pause to the eagerness of some people to get onto TV and the lengths that they would go to do that."

But that poses a fundamental dilemma for reality programmers. One of the major appeals of the genre, which has exploded since CBS' "Survivor" became a smash hit nearly a decade ago, is that it offers characters with outsize personalities, robust egos and sometimes breathtaking exhibitionism. As viewers have grown more jaded, producers have sought to cast more outrageous personalities.

And there's no lack of willing participants. In a celeb- obsessed society, reality shows offer fame seekers a real prospect of jettisoning their anonymity and becoming a star -- one need only look at Elisabeth Hasselbeck, a former "Survivor" contestant who now hosts "The View," or Heidi Montag, who leveraged her role on MTV's "The Hills" to a permanent presence in the glossy celebrity magazines.

But the extreme behavior of some reality show cast members and wannabes in recent months has forced those behind the camera to confront uncomfortable questions about whether they bear any responsibility for giving such volatile personalities a platform.

It's been an ugly season: Jon and Kate Gosselin, who gained fame through a TLC show about their eight children, traded nasty barbs in the tabloids as their marriage fell apart. Richard and Mayumi Heene, veterans of ABC's "Wife Swap," claimed that their 6-year-old floated away in a giant homemade balloon, in the so-called "balloon boy" hoax apparently aimed at landing their own series.

Most disturbing was Ryan Jenkins, a contestant on two VH1 shows, who allegedly killed his ex-wife in August, stuffed her mutilated body in a suitcase and later hanged himself.

"That was the game-changer for everybody," said Michael Hirschorn, a former VH1 executive who helped develop such genre-expanding shows as "I Love New York" and now runs the independent production house Ish Entertainment.

Hirschorn said dating shows and programs that feature contestants dealing with difficult psychological problems, such as drug addiction, are now being approached more warily. More broadly, a rollback is already underway across the genre, he said.

"Vetting processes are going to get a lot stricter," he said. "The background checks are becoming more and more rigorous. Clearly, each time there's a slip-up, the bar goes higher."

Since the Jenkins case, television industry requests for background screenings have gone up 25% at Control Risks, an international risk consulting firm with offices in Los Angeles, according to Elaine Carey, national director of investigations.

Much of the new business is coming from producers who in the past had tried to screen contestants on their own by purchasing Internet specials that offer public records searches for $29.95 or by simply Googling them, Carey said. "Now they're clearly stepping back and saying, 'Is it worth getting caught out like this?' "

The topic is so hot that organizers of Realscreen Summit, a major convention for the nonfiction film and television industry being held in Washington, D.C., in February, added a panel on "Responsible Reality."

"Judging from the headlines over the last year, if we didn't address it, it would be like ignoring the elephant in the room," said Barry Walsh, editor of Realscreen magazine, which hosts the event.

The focus of the panel will be on programs such as A&E's "Intervention," which has received kudos from critics for its thoughtful treatment of addiction. Organizers hope to spotlight docudramas that elevate their subject matter.

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