Scandals That Shocked Reality Television

On Saturday morning, August 15, 2009, the Buena Park police surround a trash receptacle at an apartment building in Orange County, California. They uncovered the body of Jasmine Fiore who was mutilated and stuffed in a suitcase. That night her ex-husband, Ryan Jenkins, reported her missing. Unable to reach him for questioning, the police issued an alert to the public for his whereabouts on August 19. The following day, he was wanted for questioning with the murder of Fiore. Subsequently, on August 21, VH1 canceled the show Megan Wants a Millionaire, which he appeared on as a contestant (Stelter). Following scandal and public scrutiny, decisions that will affect programming are made by networks in reaction to damaging criticism. These decisions are implemented through various power structures and based on economic and ethical polices which consider political and social environments. Using the production analysis theory in determining control, this article looks at how networks, such as CBS and VH1, attempt to navigate the genre of Reality Television programming and how recent events occurring impact what is seen on broadcast television.

When critically assessing the decisions exercised by network programming, it is essential to use key principals of production analysis theory. According to Elissa Fineman’s PowerPoint “Production Analysis”, presented in her Television Critical Studies class, capitalism (or for-profit mass production) dominates what is called production analysis. This analysis “is often concerned with the balance, or imbalance, of power and control that develops throughout the production process among a variety of players” (Fineman). The players of this theory can range from the writers of the show to the advertisers that invest in the show. In order to look at a program to determine who has the power, production theory divides itself into three sections: Macrolevel, Midrange, and Microlevel. Often, the influencing factors that make up the policies at the Macrolevel effect the decisions made at the Midrange, which determine the Microlevel. By studying these broadcasting institutions, our understanding of programs increase.

The top of the power structure often encompasses the Macrolevel, which “looks at how media ownership, regulation, and social trends affect content” (Fineman). In this level, the political or social environment can affect the shows that are produced and the content that is presented. For instance, when Janet Jackson exposed herself on live television, the FCC fined CBS $550,000 (“FCC Proposes Statutory Maximum Fine of $550,000 Against Viacom-Owned CBS Affiliates for Apparent Violation of Indecency Rules During Broadcast of Super Bowl Halftime Show”), which then led to the investigation of indecency policies. A decision was made that live television would be delayed to prevent further incidences (“Network Looking to Avoid Surprises at Grammy’s”). This level often looks at the industry and the media owners then allocates these policies on down.

The Midrange level looks at a company and the decisions that will be implemented based on these new policies. This level looks at how the organizational structure of the medium affects content. At this level, organizational communication and industrial relations perspectives are common (Fineman). Theses decisions are often reflective of economic or ethical constraints and this effect can restructure programming of the network. VH1 canceled two reality shows in response to public scrutiny after a contestant was accused of murder and began looking to distance itself from current programming. In another example, CBS had to release one of their cast members mid season for holding a knife on a fellow contestant. Networks were forced to re-evaluate the standards and practices that were utilized for the casting process.

When decisions made at these upper levels of power trickle down, they finally affect the Microlevel. This includes the actual production of a show: the crews, which include casting, props, and camera. On this level, certain constraints on these television workers can affect the content. For instance, if the prop team decides to walk off, this can affect the quality of a live show as the crucial props in a scene may be missing, ruining the intention and meaning. This level looks at the power of each player during the production process and the relationships among the staff and talent when doing their jobs. The firing of a cast member and the cancellation of shows will affect the crews and production companies that make up this section.

Critics will then take these concepts that make up the production analysis theory and determine the level of control exhibited. Allocative control is the power to define an organization’s scope, goals, and use of resources. Operational control looks at the use of resources and implementation of policies already decided upon and allocated down (Murdock). These criticism structures are used when looking at production theory and analysis of network programming.

Reality shows can be seen as significant cultural objects whose production and consumption reflect and reveal norms and ideologies of contemporary culture. Although what is currently conceived as the Reality Television genre is perceived as novel, this type of programming has a long history, with its foundations dating back to the early days of television (Murray).

The characteristics that define the Reality Television genre include the casting of non-professional actors competing in given tasks to determine a winner. The programs are often episodic, and generally never rerun (O’Donnell 128). Reality TV shows use constant surveillance, and the reactions in spontaneous and unscripted ways to their environment. The Networks can schedule this genre year-round, and it is relatively inexpensive programming making this format attractive to the industry (Schmuckler).

Currently, a dominant shift in Reality Television programming has emerged in both cable and public broadcasts (Murray). These reality programs regularly win the highest ratings for the majority of half-hour time slots during primetime American Television (Hill 3).  This suggests that these shows are widely accepted by the social environment in which audience voyeurism characterizes the accepted content (O’Donnell 108).

Recently, Reality TV has come under criticism for having a negative effect on modern society because it blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction (Hill 7).  The audience’s connection with reality and television is based on their understanding of the performances of the cast and that, often, personas are created for the camera (Hill 54). The debate over ethics in reality television looks at protecting the rights of these non-professional actors, and treating them in a fair manner while program makers have a responsibility to tell stories by sharing their experiences (Hill 108). Many aspects of Reality TV programming raise moral questions about how people chose to live their life (Hill 116). Many audiences tune in each week to be entertained by these programs while discussing socially acceptable or unacceptable ethics.  Rights to privacy and fair treatment, moral conduct, taste, and decency are some issues that arise when looking at the reality genre.

The recent financial crisis in America has influenced the political environment that business adheres to. Since reality television is cost effective and encourages commercial appeal, this reality format has gained widespread popularity throughout the industry. And due to deregulation policies, new technologies, and privatization, a growing number of channels that broadcast require an increased amount of relatively cheap programming to schedule this airtime (Moran 464). Advertisers look at a network for consistency and stability of a brand and to its programming. Imagery production is a for profit enterprise where valued audiences with stronger buying power are sold to advertisers by Media organizations (Media Images and the Social Construction of Reality 1). In the television business, buyers are adapting to a new reality environment. Yet as buyers may find ample rating points for their clients, the producers struggle to re-invent their back ends (Schmuckler).

Ryan Jenkins was a contestant on the VH1 series Megan Wants a Millionaire, which was a show produced by 51 Minds Entertainment. It featured several millionaires all competing for the affection of Megan, a contestant known from other previous shows on VH1 which were also produced by 51 Minds Entertainment.  After the show’s completion Jenkins then signed onto another show, I Love Money 3, to be shot and aired with the same production company and network. Two days after picking up his paycheck for I Love Money 3, news broke that his ex-wife was found murdered. The next day, Jenkins was suspected of the murder and a national manhunt was issued in the United States, as well as in Canada where he was believed to be on the run. In response to this tragedy, VH1 pulled the show off the air. Soon after the suicide of Jenkins in a Canadian motel, the network also canceled I Love Money 3 (Stelter).

It seems no one, including the casting directors and his fellow cast members, would have pegged Jenkins as dangerous. That was the case at least until news surfaced that he had a criminal record for assaulting a woman in Canada in 2007 — a crucial piece of information that, according to 51 Minds, failed to turn up on his background check for Megan. This information surfaced only during the police investigation into the murder. The events surrounding these reality series raised numerous questions within the industry and the public about the extent of background checks, contestant’s psychological stability, and whether the shows triggered delusions of grandeur or worse among those with mental problems (Stone).

VH1 became heavily scrutinized during this process which lead many to question the ethical responsibilities of the network to its programming and casting requirements. However, VH1 has had a history of employing cast members with criminal records.  This includes assault with a deadly weapon charges for member Becky Johnston of Flavor of Love 2 and Charm School with Ricki Lake, and Brittanya O’Campo got out of jail just two days before filming 51 Minds’ Charm School with Ricki Lake and previously had appeared on Rock of Love 2 (Schwartz). Similarly, Andre Birleanu, the male model who was the runner-up on America’s Most Smartest Model in 2007, had been to prison several times on charges including assault, harassment, criminal contempt, criminal mischief and trespassing before appearing on the show (Lang).

Previously on an episode of Big Brother 2, a show produced by Endemol Entertainment and broadcast on CBS in 2001, cast mate Justin Sebik was kicked off for holding a knife to housemate Krista Stegall’s throat. It was later disclosed that Sebik had been arrested three times for assault and twice for robbery but the charges were all dismissed (Schwartz).

There was a time when criminal wrongdoing immediately disqualified would-be reality stars. However, Producers were running out of people to choose from, so they started easing up on people who may have had minor infractions on their record contends casting director Robert Mazza, whose credits include the 51 Minds-produced Flavor of Love, Rock of Love, and I Love New York (Schwartz). Most insiders agree that cable channels are more lax than networks because they’re not scrutinized as heavily, and they don’t have the same financial resources. For all of the shifting rules, some say any history of violence is still a deal breaker (Schwartz).

While casting ex-cons isn’t illegal, Douglas Johnson, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles who has represented reality TV production companies and contestants, thinks dating shows that involve intimate feelings like Megan Wants a Millionaire have a greater responsibility to ensure the emotional well being and physical safety of their contestants (Lang). Reality shows have good reason to vet contestants through background checks and by other means, and many do: there are issues of liability, employability, and, of course, marketability to consider (Lang).

In the article VH1 Wants Less Love, More Redemption from the Los Angeles Times Online, the Viacom-owned cable network VH1, whose top five shows this year all have the word “love” in the title, is reassessing its heavy reliance on dating and relationship shows. Although the network says it was already in the process of plotting a new direction, the shift has taken on greater urgency following the tragedy. Joe Flint goes on to write in the article that VH1 President Tom Calderone added that VH1 was to work with 51 Minds to figure out where the vetting system went wrong. Calderone also wants to bring some new producers into the mix to ensure the network’s longevity. Many blue-chip advertisers are wary of some of the shows on VH1 because they often feature drunken antics, fighting and lots of sexual innuendo (Flint). According to industry consulting firm SNL Kagan, VH1 will have advertising revenue of $424.4 million in 2009, down 12% from two years ago. Although some of that can be attributed to the troubled economy, people close to VH1 say several of the network’s programs are a hard sell (Flint).  This is a clear indication how the Macro level influences the Mid-Range tiers.

Endemol USA, a subsidiary of the Endemol Group, produces its own unscripted television shows, and has been known for their controversial reality programming on public network primetime broadcasting with shows such as Big Brother, Fear Factor, and Deal or No Deal. They have achieved a reputation of delivering quality programming which has led to a solid partnership with the Networks (Adalian). Similarly, 51 Minds Entertainment is a television production company that focuses on reality-based programming, talk shows, and game shows. Most of its work has been for MTV Network’s VH1 channel, including such shows as Charm School, Flavor of Love, and I Love New York. Producers and partners Cris Abrego (51 Pictures) and Mark Cronin (Mindless Entertainment) first combined forces in 2003 to create The Surreal Life (“51 Minds Entertainment, LLC”). In a deal valued at upward of $200 million, Endemol USA has acquired 51 Minds Entertainment, which comes in the wake of Elisabeth Murdoch’s multimillion acquisition of Reveille. Both moves represent attempts by international conglomerates to expand their stateside presence by looking to successful American producers (Adalian).

These recent violent acts in reality television are not isolated incidents. Jonathan Schmitz was accused of murdering Scott Amedure three days after they appeared together on a taping of The Jenny Jones Show in March 1995 (Carter). The show was never broadcast but in 1996, a jury ordered producers of The Jenny Jones Show, a Time Warner Inc. Company, to pay more than $25 million to the victim’s family (Talk Show Held Negligent in Guest’s Killing). In July 2000, Ralf Panitz, 42, was convicted of killing his ex-wife, Nancy Campbell-Panitz, 52, after an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, which depicted them in a love triangle (Weber). Recently, in September 2009, 45-year-old Brian Lee Randone was charged with the murder of Felicia Tang Lee, 31. The AP reported that Randone was a contestant on the 2000 Fox Reality show Sexiest Bachelor in America (Netter).

Could these shows promote murder by the Producer’s for ratings in the future? One can look at a show in Brazil as an example of the dangers of violence in the Reality Television genre. Wallace Souza, the former host of the true crime television show Canal Livre, was accused of commissioning a variety of criminal acts, which included at least five murders, to bolster the show’s ratings. Since that time, officials have filed multiple charges against Souza and prosecutors say that he even attempted to have a federal judge assassinated (“Brazil TV Host Accused in Plot to Kill Judge”). Like the film Rollerball, which depicts a violent game on television that commissions it’s players to kill others for ratings, the future of entertainment has a tumultuous future ahead. Without corporate responsibility, producers of media could go to extreme lengths to increase their viewership.

According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than four hours of TV each day. This means that in a sixty-five-year life, that person will have spent nine years glued to the tube. The number of violent acts seen on television by the age of eighteen averages about 200,000 (“Television and Health”). Seventy-nine percent of Americans believe that violence on TV contributes to real life violence (“Television and Health”).  Analysts remarked that realism in TV programs increased the aggression and involvement of the viewer. They claimed that the high violence shown in reality TV programs adversely influenced viewers’ perceptions; such programs made viewers regard the real world to be as violent as that shown on TV (“The Reality TV Controversies: A Series of Controversies”). Analysts observed that viewers continued to watch reality TV in spite of the criticism it received. They therefore argued that viewers were as much to blame for these shows as the networks and advertisers.

Entertainment television, whether in the Micro sense of the program or the Macro sense as a commercial medium is shaped and sanctioned by individuals who make choices (Mascaro). Based on discussed variables, the corporations, such as Viacom, make policies that become implemented in the industry that effect the decisions of the networks, like CBS or VH1, and production companies such as 51 Minds Entertainment and Endemol. Ethically.  If networks continue to employ violent cast members they surely will have more bloodshed on their hands.

It is detrimental that viewers also take responsibility in their viewing choices as these decisions directly affect the content that is produced. For the protection of all people involved in television programming, it is crucial that the Ethics of the Macro level are upheld so that the decisions that effect both Midrange and Microlevel are executed.