Guy Adams: Careful with those reality TV hopefuls

LA Notebook

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:48

It should probably be a source of great national pride that British reality TV formats dominate US prime-time schedules to the extent that talent show judges such as Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan are now considered "big" in Hollywood.

Sometimes, though, I wonder what's to celebrate. After all, the successful export of once-British shows like American Idol and America's Got Talent is largely based on the endless supply of weirdos and oddballs who can star in them.

Take Richard Heene, the Colorado man so addicted to reality TV that police have accused him of orchestrating an extraordinary publicity stunt, to promote a show, that involved falsely claiming that his six-year-old son had flown off in a flying-saucer-shaped helium balloon. Mr Heene, or "balloon dad" as he'll be forever known, is an all-American eccentric, with personal beliefs dodgier than his 1990s haircut. Among them, he subscribes to a conspiracy theory that humans are descended from lizards from a distant corner of outer space.

This no doubt made him a brilliantly bonkers candidate to appear in the US version of Wife Swap. So producers duly invited Mr Heene on the show twice. If we are to psychoanalyse his subsequent behaviour, that could very well have sparked the hunger for publicity that boiled over so disastrously last week.

Getting eccentrics in front of camera is, however, common practice in reality TV, a genre that mocks strange and often vulnerable people. And it frequently ends in tears: this summer, it was reported that 11 reality show contestants have recently committed suicide. What makes "balloon dad's" case particularly worrying is his past: it has emerged that Mr Heene boasts two previous convictions, for vandalism, and assault with a deadly weapon (a gun). He's served time in jail. He's the last sort of person who should be given the oxygen of publicity.

Yet RDF, the British production company that makes Wife Swap, stuck him on prime-time. The firm claims, as a matter of policy, to vet the background of all contestants. In the light of what happened to Mr Heene, and to protect a lucrative UK export, they should consider vetting harder in future.

When your 'tache goes boo!

My local Halloween store (it's that time of year) boasts an intriguing bestseller: a mask that combines the normal face of an extra-terrestrial with a droopy black handlebar moustache. The product is aimed at members of the Rush Limbaugh school of race-relations, who fancy dressing up as an "illegal alien".

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