How a 'Real Housewives' Suicide Sheds Light on Exploitation in Reality TV
Russell Armstrong's death raises questions about series focusing on the sick, weak and mentally ill as insiders reveal to THR a one-sided dynamic where the "star" almost always loses.
That was the certainly the case with the British reality show There's Something About Miriam, whose six male contestants sued, delaying the airing of the first season in 2003, because they hadn't been informed that the woman they were pursuing was transsexual. They settled for an undisclosed payment.
But Nancy Dubuc, president and GM of History and Lifetime Networks and one of the original executives behind A&E's addiction-themed Intervention, says she and her fellow executives go to considerable trouble to ensure people are given treatment.
"We walk the talk," she says. "From the launch of Intervention, which I was part of, we have always looked on it not just as a show but as an initiative. Addiction is a very serious problem, and we go out into communities and try to do something about it."
Her parent company, AETN, has been active in setting up town hall meetings to discuss addiction, creating a partnership with the nonprofit organization Drug Free America and instituting its own recovery project. "We do a great deal to follow these people beyond the program," Dubuc says.
That's equally true of A&E's Hoarders.
"We are on the set up to 10 hours a day, working with them for two days," says clinical psychologist Robin Zasio, who also travels with a professional organizer. Once the five-day shoot is over, "We provide aftercare services, dependent on each individual person."
Treatment combines cognitive behavioral therapy with exposure and response-prevention techniques. "We search out therapists in their area," she adds -- all paid for by A&E and lasting as long as eight months.
"The producers have incredible compassion for the hoarders," Zasio says. "If I even thought there was exploitation, I would not be doing it."
One of the most talked-about hoarders, known as Glen the rat man, whose house became filled with some 2,000 rodents, is still being cared for many months after the episode featuring him was shot, she notes (though the show's reps said he would not be interviewed for this article).
But is this true of others? There's a veritable slew of low-budget Hoarders imitations and other addiction shows that have no medical, psychological or guild regulations. They can pretty much film what they want, with the participants' agreement, regardless of the sort of consequences Bravo might have to face, just as VH1 did before it.
When Ryan Jenkins, a contestant on the VH1 competition Megan Wants a Millionaire, was sought by police for the gruesome murder of his wife, the network scrambled to deal with the fallout of its poor vetting. Stung by criticism for its tawdry "celeb-reality" TV programming, VH1 withdrew all material related to the show from its website and immediately canceled the show. Bravo has not yet done that.
Other shows, like the syndicated veteran Cheaters, have remained on the air for years -- even following an onscreen stabbing.
It's a late Saturday night in early spring, and Detective Danny Gomez sits in his black Mercedes, parked on a shady lane in a suburb of Dallas, waiting for one of his targets to step out of a house where he has been visiting his mistress.
Gomez, a stocky, happy-go-lucky man in his early 40s, has been with Cheaters -- following unfaithful partners at the request of their significant others -- since the show's inception 12 years ago. Fresh out of the police force, with his own detective agency, Gomez had no idea the program would turn him into a local celebrity when its producer asked him to be one of the main detectives on the series.
He also had no idea its host, Joey Greco, would be stabbed (though not fatally) by an infuriated subject in 2003, a reminder that the Armstrong incident isn't isolated.
None of which bothers Gomez, who's convinced snooping on cheating spouses and partners is positive in the long run.
"It does them good," he says.
He admits his work may have had a negative effect on him. He caught his brother-in-law cheating once and has been cheated on himself. "That hurt," he says, turning quiet. "Now it's very hard for me to be in a relationship. I see wedding pictures, a time in your life when things were good, and look what happens." Still, he says he wouldn't mind being filmed himself. "I'd want people to see it."
Snooping hasn't made Gomez rich (unlike executive producer Bobby Goldstein, who has made millions from the show). He lives in a modest $1,000-a-month apartment and spends most of his time working.
It won't make the people who appear on Cheaters rich, either: Most aren't paid a penny when they're shown on TV, even though they have to sign contracts agreeing to have the material aired. Oddly, almost all say yes; those who don't usually consent if they're given a few hundred dollars -- at most, up to $2,000, according to Goldstein.
In a few minutes, Gomez's suspect will step out of his mistress' house, kiss her -- all filmed by Gomez's flip camera -- and find himself the next subject to feed TV's insatiable appetite for reality. Who knows what effect it will have on him.
Psychologists can debate whether Real Housewives contributed to Armstrong's suicide or merely held a camera up to a man who was deteriorating anyway. But as Hollywood continues to profit from the personal problems of reality TV stars, the industry is taking note of the downside.
"The difficult thing is, you are dealing with real people's lives, which haven't been fully explored or discussed," says Kevin Burns, executive producer of the Playboy-themed The Girls Next Door. "I really worry for the people who have been train wrecks on TV."