Unless you’re living under a rock (or Northern Manitoba), your eyes and ears have bared witness to the “Balloon Boy” saga out of Ft. Collins, CO. (I don’t have time to recap it here, so if you have no idea what I’m referring to, please explain to me how you’re reading this on the Internets.) Needless to say, millions of people were glued to their TV’s and/or computers around Noon PST on Thursday, October 15, 2009.
Later that evening, questions about the incident began to surface after a family interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN (who almost lost the scoop, but that’s another blog topic). A comment made by the 6-year-old Balloon Boy himself Falcon Heene (“You had said that we did this for a show.”) immediately set off a firestorm of questions regarding the legitimacy of the incident. Did Falcon hide in the attic in fear as Dad’s experimental balloon lifted off while his family thought he was trapped inside? Or did father Richard Heene plan an elaborate hoax involving his family in the hopes of gaining notoriety?
Evidence and media reports as of this time most certainly point to the latter. But regardless of the legal ramifications of this incident, there’s a reason that someone like Richard Heene allegedly went to such great lengths to stage a fantastic hoax.
America rewards this type of behavior.
Take a look at the slate of reality shows that pollute our airwaves. At first, they were competition-based (Battle of the Network Stars, Circus of the Stars, Celebrity Family Feud, etc.), with no presentation of the drama that went on behind the scenes. What happened in front of the studio audience is what the home viewers saw on TV.
Then in 1992, some genius / disciple-of-the-antichrist came up with The Real World, a show that pits seven dissimilar strangers into a Manhattan apartment and films their interactions for a few months. The emphasis of the show was placed on the drama that would typically occur behind-the-scenes of such a production, and subsequently America’s love for Gen-X drama was born. Now, 26 (yes, 26) seasons later, we’ve seen what happens when you pit douchebags, racists, homosexuals, sluts, alcoholics, junkies, rednecks, born-again evangelicals, prostitutes, and other formerly-outcast personality types into a room together: you get ratings!
Note that I did not say you get quality TV. As most Americans know, quality rarely has anything to do with popularity (iPhone being the only recent example I can think of when those two actually join forces). MTV’s intent of producing TRW was not a noble endeavor like a science experiment. It was to generate money for its corporate parent and drive its stock price upward. Pure and simple.
So if you have a successful first season of TRW, the question eventually comes up from the executives at MTV: How can we make more money on the next season? Well, here’s how:
1. Cut costs wherever possible. Move from New York to Los Angeles. Believe it or not, rent in LA is much cheaper per square foot than in NYC. There are also more production resources available.
2. Hire more outrageous talent. New York has its fill of interesting people, but Los Angeles has even more, which means a more competitive talent pool. Crazier people at half the cost!
3. Product placement. Let’s offer space in the Real World fridge to both Pepsi and Coca-Cola and see who the highest bidder is. Let’s do the same with other items in the house: furniture, TV’s, pool tables, all the way down to the cans of shaving cream in the bathroom cabinets.
Thus begins the vicious cycle. Every season costs less to produce, and gains higher ratings at the same time. When ratings start to decline, find even crazier people (to this day we still remember Puck from season 3!), even cheaper furniture (IKEA) and more strategically-placed products (videos games, screen savers) to put into the house.
Thanks to the TRW model, we have an onslaught of producers who can make higher-rated shows with crazier people at lesser costs. At the same time, America’s appetite for self-degradation is climbing. We used to have to leave our home in order to see people risk their own dignity and/or lives (daredevil stunts, strip clubs, etc.). TV brought it into the living room. The internet took out of the living room and onto the computer. Now, mobile technology is literally putting it into our hand. The ability to cheaply produce a show with racier racists, sluttier sluts, gayer gays, drunker drunks, etc. has an even greater return-on-investment with the vast improvement of technology over the last 15 years.
Richard Heene took the vicious cycle to a whole new level by involving his kids in the alleged hoax. As a pioneer (and yes, he will one day, if not already, be regarded as a pioneer), he will be seen as a martyr, or the guy who “took one for the team.” His kids were too young to effectively contribute to his cause, and now he has too many skeletons in his closet to have any chance at becoming a legitimate star. But if his kids were in their teens, with a little more comprehension of their dad’s thought process, I imagine that producers would be on one-way flights to Denver as we speak to sign them to a production deal.
In the meantime, a browsing session through any on-screen TV guide reveals the wrath that the vicious cycle hath brought. A few choice examples:
Keeping Up With The Kardashians – OJ Simpson’s lawyer’s widow, who married freaky face-lifted Bruce Jenner, and has a daughter with a big butt and a sex tape, lives in a house in Calabasas. They have adventures.
The Girls Next Door – Three way-too-similar Playboy Playmates all sleep with octogenarian founder Hugh Hefner…at the same time! Uh oh, now the girls are hitting their late 20’s. Time for them to break up and get some twins in there. They also have adventures, but they also have a higher probability of obtaining venereal disease.
Rock of Love – literally a whore contest, with wetter adventures, and way more venereal disease. (Season 3, a.k.a. Rock of Love Bus, is the same show, but on wheels.)
I Love Money – a spinoff of Rock of Love where one of the more outrageous whores from RoL turns the tables and surrounds herself with competing man-whores (in the name of feminism?), and the adventures here are even more adventurey than on RoL, and the venereal diseases are more robust.
Daisy of Love – another spinoff featuring more whores, more adventures, and all-NEW venereal diseases!
Megan Wants a Millionaire – more whoring, but this time the show was cancelled after a couple episodes because a finalist was wanted for murder and eventually was found dead in a motel. The adventures and venereal diseases are a mystery here, and that keeps me awake some nights.
The Bachelor – classier whores with the occasional advanced degree, with classier adventures and classier venereal diseases.
Tool Academy – a-holes go to a-hole rehab where they learn to be less of an a-hole and are rewarded for this greatest of all accomplishments. The adventures and venereal diseases on this show are totally unoriginal.
Compared to the shows on E! and VH1, TRW now seems like a contender for the Peabody Award. Reality TV has become an endless parade of whores and a-holes, all trying to out-whore, out-a-hole, out-adventure and out-venereal-disease each other. Americans are becoming dumber by watching this and demanding even more. Advertisers are selling more pills for boners and weight loss thanks to higher ratings (and people continue to buy them!). Network corporate parents’ stock prices are climbing. CEO’s are bringing home a bigger bonus check to pay for their 8th golden indoor pool.
And we have the nerve to bitch about this recession? WE’RE THE ENABLERS!
Just like Frankenstein, we created the reality TV monster, and it will be up to us to destroy it. I’m not about the get on my soapbox with my bullhorn and scream while jumping up and down. Doing that just makes me part of the problem, as someone would likely videotape that and the following arrest, post it onto YouTube, and then I would become my own punch line. I simply refuse to let that happen, and I prefer to take over from the inside.
The simple solution is this: education. If parents could treat their kids like kids and not like friends, and if we told them to turn off the TV and do their homework, the vicious cycle just might become reversed. By increasing brain power, students will eventually realize that there’s more to life than being famous and on TV. They might realize that being on the cover of a tabloid wasn’t always rewarding. It used to be a place reserved for disgraced celebs, like Michael Jackson when he was charged with child molestation (twice), or Sean Connery talking about how he feels it’s OK to slap his wife around, or Prince Charles cheating on Lady Diana. It used to be that publicists would make phone calls to keep their clients OFF of tabloid covers. Now the opposite is true, and as a bonus, it can lead to endorsement deals.
Richard Heene is a typical Hollywood a-hole who clearly had a place reserved for him in reality TV world, but his lack of brain power prevented him from reaching his goal. No book deal. No appearance on Oprah or The Today Show. Not even a made-for-TV movie. Just a punch line for the next year, and a reference amongst intellectual hipsters for the next 10 years (“Whoa, I totally Heene’d that presentation this morning.”).
Parents: don’t Heene your children.
Kids: don’t Heene your homework.
Reality TV producers and “stars”: go Heene yourselves!
In closing, I suggest renting the movie Idiocracy by Mike Judge. It’s not Judge’s best work (that was Office Space), but he certainly meant well by making it. The film gives us a peek at a possible bleak future overrun by stupidity, something this world could very well become unless steps are taken soon to prevent it. Even Judge would agree that he does not want this film to become a prophetic masterpiece.