Will Heidi and Spencer stay or go? For the last week, that has been the soap opera rocking NBC's reality show "I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!"
In some ways, the off-screen antics -- which include a weekend hospitalization for "The Hills" star Heidi Montag Pratt, allegations that the pair endured "torture" at the hands of producers, feverish Twitter updates from relatives and her husband Spencer Pratt's reported intention to sue the network -- really are the show. These days, it's hard to separate stunt from content.
In the latest chapter of their odd reality-TV stardom, the Pratts -- or "Speidi," as the couple is increasingly known -- have relentlessly toyed with viewers as they ostentatiously quit, then tried to rejoin, then waged an evident sickout against, the program. NBC says it has nothing to do with the couple's decision-making. But that didn't stop the network from putting out a news release last week trumpeting their attempt to come back. And Paul Telegdy, NBC's new reality programming chief, traveled himself to the set in Costa Rica to attempt to manage the ruckus. An NBC spokeswoman confirmed that Heidi and Spencer would both appear on Monday's two-hour episode. The couple's PR person, in a statement released Monday afternoon, said that "many" of the reports concerning the couple and "Celebrity" are "false and inaccurate, including any reports of 'torture' on the show."
The Speidi affair came on the heels of another heavily publicized stunt, in which the sometimes gay-baiting rapper Eminem stormed out of the MTV Movie Awards after winding up on the unpleasant end of a ribald skit involving Bruno, a flamboyantly gay character played by "Borat" comic Sacha Baron Cohen. Online debate about the incident didn't quiet down until one of the show's writers and later Eminem himself confirmed that the entire incident, including his angry walkout, was carefully rehearsed. (MTV steadfastly refused comment, including for this story.)
Such stunts are, in any case, becoming a familiar TV signpost, as networks and producers battle ongoing audience fragmentation by scraping for memorable "moments" that can thrive as viral video, drive discussion on Twitter and other social-media sites and inevitably end up in the mainstream gossip and entertainment press.
It may be the speed of the process that is most astonishing.
On the March 2 finale of ABC's "The Bachelor," fans were stunned when Jason Mesnick suddenly jilted his presumed betrothed, Melissa Rycroft. Within days, the network had spun the situation to its advantage by giving the spurned Rycroft a gig on "Dancing With the Stars."
To NBC's Telegdy, it's "a world where network television is evolving faster than the planning process of traditional types of programming allow for. . . . This is a fast-evolving move into a completely different media environment, which is blindsiding everyone and of which ['I'm a Celebrity'] is a feature," he said in an interview.
Actually, blindsided may describe NBC's immersion in the world of Heidi and Spencer, who apparently have given network executives a little more buzz than they bargained for. Telegdy said he was taken aback by their first announcement that they would quit the show. He went so far as to issue a statement to Ryan Seacrest's radio show that called the pair an emblem of "everything that's wrong with America."
Skeptics may laugh at the notion that any network could be flummoxed in such a situation; after all, some level of artifice exists in every reality show. Doesn't the back-and-forth over the Heidi-Spencer exit merely feed the media beast? Telegdy conceded that, although posing a challenge for the "Celebrity" crew, the much-publicized walkout of the stars made for "great TV."
In the current TV environment, where networks are struggling with increased competition and short viewer attention spans, producers and executives are hoping to intertwine such gimmicks into both the programming and the marketing strategy.
"Stunts have been going on for a long time, but now they're more prevalent," said Scott Sternberg, a veteran reality TV producer ("Hey Paula") not involved in either "Celebrity" or the MTV awards show. "There's more work and more producership directed at, 'What can we do to get attention, to generate promo material, tease material, that will hopefully grab people's attention?' "
If all's fair in show business, the real issue might be for journalists, who find themselves trying to puzzle out whether they're covering the news or helping to create it.
"We got used," said Harvey Levin, chief of TMZ, referring to his website's generous coverage of the Eminem and Speidi news. Levin conceded that by writing about the incidents, his reporters were doing exactly what the producers wanted.