A recent episode of Comedy Central’s South Park satirized Animal Planet’s Whale Wars, with a cameo from the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch.
The episode, titled ‘Whale Whores,’ suggests Sea Shepherd captain Paul Watson, whose campaign to stop whaling in the Antarctic has been the subject of two seasons of the compelling and outstanding Animal Planet documentary series, cares about publicity more than whales. In the South Park episode, the Watson-based character uses the reality show for even more publicity, which causes further escalation in the conflict, at least until he’s harpooned.
The satire is graphic, over-the-top and crude (and very, very funny). It’s also a pretty astute observation of a topic discussed frequently in the wake of the disaster known as Jon and Kate Gosselin’s marriage: the effects of the kind of fame reality TV brings to its subjects.
Because viewers are interested in the actual real lives of people who appear on reality shows, boundaries collapse. If celebrities – who’ve built careers slowly and deliberately with guidance and feedback from managers and the like – struggle with fame, what can we expect from someone living in Middle America who becomes fodder for the media overnight?
These kinds of questions have come into even greater focus since the world was introduced to ‘Balloon Boy’ Falcon Heene and his apparently fame-obsessed father Richard. Allegations against Richard suggest two appearances on Wife Swap may not have been enough for him. A researcher who says Heene hired him to develop a proposal for a reality series told his story to Gawker, detailing a man obsessed with fame. The researcher even provided an outline of episodes for the series, which included an episode about, surprise, a balloon. Richard Heene recently pleaded guilty to the felony charge of attempting to influence a public servant, with his wife Mayumi charged with one count of false reporting to authorities.
Should Wife Swap have brought the Heenes back? Should they have ever cast them in the first place? Was there some point at which TLC should have cancelled Jon & Kate Plus 8 so as to not cause further damage?
How much responsibility do producers have for the effects of their subjects’ burgeoning celebrity? Reasonable answers to that question range from ‘none’ to ’100 %.’ On one end, reality programming chronicles the lives of adults, or of kids whose parents have consented to have their kids’ lives taped. (The inclusion of kids in all of this opens up an entirely different line of questions about responsibility; I’m sure the Gosselin kids will have something to contribute to that conversation in 15 or 20 years.)
Adults who consent don’t need coddling; they need to read the contracts and do the research, and decide for themselves if losing anonymity is worth whatever they’ll gain, whether that’s a chance at $1 million on Survivor or attention for a Real Housewives star’s business.
On the other end of the spectrum, despite the extensive tabloid coverage that the Gosselins have received, few viewers really grasp what it’s like to be filmed for an extended period of time, never mind have one’s life turned into edited entertainment.
Even the most honest, straightforward, ethical documentary exposes its subjects to a high level of scrutiny and attention. Because that attention equals ratings and money, producers and networks alike have an incentive to act selfishly, ordering more episodes despite the impact those might have.
Because there is a wide range of good arguments to these complex questions, the answers lie somewhere in-between. The important thing is that, from conception to casting, post-production to publicity, producers ask these questions, of themselves and of their current and future stars.