On the 100th episode of Wife Swap, self-described psychic Sheree Silver stood in front of Richard Heene and warned him, ”You are leading your family into a science experiment that’s going to blow up in your face.” Maybe it’s time we start believing in clairvoyance. As anyone who’s turned on a TV in the past week knows, officials in Fort Collins, Colo., have accused Heene and his wife, Mayumi, of orchestrating a hoax by calling 911 on Oct. 15 to report that their 6-year-old son, Falcon, had taken flight in a homemade weather balloon (the boy was found hiding in a box in his attic). The massive rescue efforts and subsequent unraveling of Heene’s story put the father of three and aspiring reality TV star smack-dab in the eye of a media storm — and not in the way he likely intended.
Thanks to Heene’s reality TV résumé, the amateur scientist appeared twice on ABC’s Swap, and was shopping a reality show involving his family chasing storms — everything about the alleged hoax points to one motivation: fame. And though at press time Heene was maintaining his innocence, his clear determination to thrust his three kids into the spotlight makes one thing disturbingly clear: Some people will do whatever it takes to get on TV — even at the expense of their own children’s safety, emotional well-being, or both. (Exhibit A: Little Falcon vomiting on both Good Morning America and the Today show.) ”This is what I’m really scared of,” says reality TV producer Tom Forman, who says he heard and rejected Heene’s pitch for a storm-chasing series. ”Parents get blinded by the lights, the fame, and the lure of Hollywood, and are willing to do anything to get themselves on television, including putting their children in harm’s way. This is what happens when a father tries to play television producer.” And that’s coming from the man who brought us Kid Nation, the 2007 CBS reality show on which young cast members accidentally consumed bleach during filming.
But while Nation added fuel to TV’s child-exploitation argument, the debate has really ignited thanks to high-profile child-centric shows like Jon & Kate Plus Eight, The Baby Borrowers, and the made-for-reality-TV circus surrounding Nadya ”Octomom” Suleman. Like many reality TV parents, Jon and Kate Gosselin said they did it for their children’s monetary benefit (though Jon later filed a cease-and-desist letter that claimed the show endangered his children…the same day he was kicked off the show). According to child advocates, the blame extends beyond the parents. ”The entertainment executives very well know the risks that are facing these children,” says former child star Paul Petersen (The Donna Reed Show), who now serves as president of A Minor Consideration, an advocacy group for young performers. ”They just turn a blind eye to it and climb in their Mercedes as if they’re blameless. I’m sorry, but you’re not blameless.”