Earlier this year, Bravo’s Work Out suffered the loss of one of its cast members, a trainer at Jackie Warner’s SkySport Gym. At the time of Doug’s actual death, Bravo said in a statement, ‘All of us at Bravo are deeply saddened by the terrible news of Doug Blasdell’s untimely passing… Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to his many friends and colleagues at this very difficult time.’
The second season debuted in March and was dedicated to Doug’s memory, and the penultimate episode ended with an emotional conversation between the other trainers about Doug’s deteriorating condition, followed by images of Doug and a simple title card that gave the dates of his birth and death.
In that episode and the one that followed, producers and editors did a masterful job of combining scenes featuring Doug, footage of the trainers dealing with the loss and remembering his life, and archival footage to tell the story of his tragic death.
Bravo itself, however, wasn’t as tactful. After the second-to-last episode aired, the net issued a press release celebrating its ratings, tactlessly associating Doug’s death with its numbers. ‘Bravo’s Work Out dedication episode delivers the ratings,’ the release’s title shouted. The subtitle, too, merged the personal with business. It declared that the episode ‘Delivers nearly one million total viewers for episode dedicated in memory of trainer Doug Blasdell.’
Among other things, the press release also said, ‘The emotional episode… also made Bravo the number two cable network in its time slot among women 18 to 49 (541,000).’ Being number two on cable in a particular time slot among a very specific demographic isn’t a huge achievement, and that seems to confirm that the release was an attempt to squeeze publicity out of a tragic event.
Earlier, on the network’s website, VP Andy Cohen blogged that he would ‘write more about Doug tomorrow after you’ve seen the episode. Grab a hanky because this show tonight is really sad.’ Two sentences later, he was bragging about attending ‘a sangria party’ and planning ‘to pick up Amy Sedaris on my way over.’
Shameless name-dropping is nothing new for Cohen’s self-serving blog, but again, the message the network was sending through various mediums communicated only the desire for viewers to watch.
Meanwhile, over on TLC, cameras were rolling last fall on its Little People, Big World series when two cast members, including nine-year-old Jacob Roloff, were injured by a 2,000-pound block of concrete. It was part of a medieval trebuchet used for entertainment on the farm the family runs. Two days after the incident occurred, TLC posted a letter on the show’s website from Jacob’s father updating viewers about his son’s condition, and it also included an informative statement from the network.
TLC explained that ‘cameras were taping footage for the series at an alternate location when the incident occurred,’ so the accident was not caught on tape. It also said, ‘The thoughts and prayers of everyone at TLC are with Jacob, Mike and the Roloff family and we hope for a speedy recovery.’
The accident was included in the first episode of the third season, and the cameras followed Jacob’s father, Matt, as he learned of the accident and arrived at the scene. There, viewers saw the Roloff’s bloodied family friend and Jacob both lying on the ground, surrounded by grief-stricken family members and strangers as they waited for ambulances.
The moment was horrifying and wrenching, but as with the on-screen handling of Blasdell’s death, was handled well and did not come across as voyeuristic or exploitative.
Like Bravo, TLC also issued a ratings-focused press release after the debut episodes, but unlike Bravo, the cablenet made no mention of the episode’s content. While it did include descriptions of upcoming episodes, that came after boilerplate about the show, and the accident was not mentioned in connection with the ratings.
Both networks’ immediate responses to the tragedies showed that they cared about their cast members as people, not just as characters who help earn ratings and advertising revenue. But while certainly no one at Bravo would have hoped for this sort of tragedy, its after-the-fact responses to the show’s reality seemed less concerned about what actually happened and more concerned about making the events benefit the network.
Filming real people and their real lives for unscripted programs results in human drama that captivates audiences, and sometimes that drama has significant, tragic consequences. Networks should always keep the media and viewers informed about what happens with their shows and to the real people in them, but the two should never be combined.