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The Lure of Reality TV

Tom PattonBy now, you’ve heard about Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the Virginia couple who bluffed their way into President Obama’s first state dinner. It’s the ultimate party to crash, I suppose, and that they pulled it off with such aplomb borders on breathtaking. The Salahis have been described as socialites, party crashers, and the like. But in the Washington Post Sunday morning was a description that is becoming all too familiar.

“Aspiring reality-TV stars.”

The Salahis are apparently asking for a six-figure payday to tell their story, and have cancelled an appearance on Larry King Live. Of course, legitimate news organizations won’t pay for interviews, so there’s a good chance the publicity-seeing couple will be left out in the cold, which would be appropriate.

But it’s the second time this fall that people have apparently done something outrageous in an effort to impress reality television producers. Who can forget Balloon Boy, whose dad convinced him to hid in the attic while much of the world thought he was in a plywood box under a Mylar balloon drifting over Colorado? His parents had pitched a reality television show to a cable network and had been turned down. During an appearance on Larry King Live, Falcon Heene turned to his dad and said, with childlike innocence, “you guys said we did it for the show,” and the hoax unraveled.

I’m not sure which is more egregious. The Heenes did more than cause a media sensation. The number of local, state, and federal authorities scrambled to try to rescue a boy that was hiding in a box in the attic of the family garage cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. The Salahis poked a finger in the eye of the Secret Service, and has people wondering “what if it had been someone who was actually a threat to the President?” It’s a fair bet that there will not be any more party crashers at White House state dinners.

But the common thread of these two incidents is reality television. Apparently enough ordinary people have become minor, or in some cases mid-level celebrities because of their participation on “Survivor”, or “Big Brother”, “Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire”, or whatever, that folks like the Heenes and the Salahis try to stack the deck in their favor. Not content to wait for the chance to appear on a show, they try to create enough publicity to catch the attention of some producer somewhere.

“Reality Television” has become a huge genre. Beyond the original shows like “Survivor”, there are now a plethora of programs that find ordinary people on television. “Ghost Hunters” features a couple of plumbers who go out at night and chase paranormal activity, and has spawned a half dozen copycat shows, none of which is nearly as good. “Mythbusters” is a couple of special effects guys that have parlayed spectacular explosions into a fun, entertaining television show. “Dirty Jobs” has pitchman and voice-over talent Mike Rowe going out and “getting dirty”, and when you look at the credits, it was his idea. But you also meet very interesting people who would never see the light of day were it not for the program. “Ace of Cakes” has turned a admittedly already high-end baker in Baltimore into an enormous celebrity, and who can now charge sometimes tens of thousands of dollars for one of his creations. Celebrity chefs, inventors, pitchmen, special effects guys, and just plumbers-cum-ghost hunters, all getting far more than their allotted 15 minutes of fame. And, of course, there’s “American Idol”, “America’s Got Talent”, “Dancing With The Stars”, “Project Runway”, “The Next Food Network Star”, “Top Chef” … the list is nearly endless … all based on people with jobs, talent (in most cases), and a dream, on television. Some with amazing paydays at the end of the road.

But now, it seems they’re just trying too hard. It’s not such a bad thing when the media gets caught flat-footed reporting on the Balloon Boy, because that’s what they do. As hoaxes go, it was well planned and executed. But when air traffic is potentially interrupted at a major airport, and the Air National Guard is called in to assist … it’s gotten out of hand.

With over 500 channels to fill with programming, television executives can’t really be faulted for finding inexpensive ways to fill them. As in every endeavor, some of the programming is much better than others, and if it makes celebrities out of chefs and plumbers, well that’s often a function of being at the right place at the right time with a good idea. But the best thing that can happen with the Heenes and the Salahis is for their efforts to fail. If charges need to be filed, so be it. Charges are already pending against the Heenes, and some members of the U.S. Senate are calling for an investigation in to the Salahis. But in both cases, when those issues are settled, they should be allowed to just fade away into obscurity, without reaping rewards for their actions.

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