A reality check for TV series producers

Michaele and Tareq Salahi were a reality TV producer’s dream. Until they became a nightmare.

As aspiring cast members of the upcoming Bravo show “The Real Housewives of D.C.,” the Virginia couple portrayed themselves as a high-flying duo that could offer a window into Washington’s power set. But their brazen crashing of a White House state dinner last month reduced them to attention-craving caricatures, triggering a congressional investigation into security at the executive mansion along the way.

Now their questionable behavior -- along with the exploits of “balloon boy” and other recent high-profile misadventures of reality TV participants -- is prompting a bout of anxious misgivings among the purveyors of the popular genre.

“It’s clearly something everyone is worried about and is trying to deal with,” said Nancy Dubuc, who oversaw the development of shows like “Growing Up Gotti” at A&E and now runs the cable network History, where she launched programs like “Ice Road Truckers.” “There’s a lot of quiet chatter in the industry of, ‘Hey, let’s look at this before it becomes a bigger issue.’ I would hope that people are giving some serious pause to the eagerness of some people to get onto TV and the lengths that they would go to do that.”

But that poses a fundamental dilemma for reality programmers. One of the major appeals of the genre, which has exploded since CBS’ “Survivor” became a smash hit nearly a decade ago, is that it offers characters with outsize personalities, robust egos and sometimes breathtaking exhibitionism. As viewers have grown more jaded, producers have sought to cast more outrageous personalities.

And there’s no lack of willing participants. In a celeb- obsessed society, reality shows offer fame seekers a real prospect of jettisoning their anonymity and becoming a star -- one need only look at Elisabeth Hasselbeck, a former “Survivor” contestant who now hosts “The View,” or Heidi Montag, who leveraged her role on MTV’s “The Hills” to a permanent presence in the glossy celebrity magazines.

But the extreme behavior of some reality show cast members and wannabes in recent months has forced those behind the camera to confront uncomfortable questions about whether they bear any responsibility for giving such volatile personalities a platform.

It’s been an ugly season: Jon and Kate Gosselin, who gained fame through a TLC show about their eight children, traded nasty barbs in the tabloids as their marriage fell apart. Richard and Mayumi Heene, veterans of ABC’s “Wife Swap,” claimed that their 6-year-old floated away in a giant homemade balloon, in the so-called “balloon boy” hoax apparently aimed at landing their own series.

Most disturbing was Ryan Jenkins, a contestant on two VH1 shows, who allegedly killed his ex-wife in August, stuffed her mutilated body in a suitcase and later hanged himself.

“That was the game-changer for everybody,” said Michael Hirschorn, a former VH1 executive who helped develop such genre-expanding shows as “I Love New York” and now runs the independent production house Ish Entertainment.

Hirschorn said dating shows and programs that feature contestants dealing with difficult psychological problems, such as drug addiction, are now being approached more warily. More broadly, a rollback is already underway across the genre, he said.

“Vetting processes are going to get a lot stricter,” he said. “The background checks are becoming more and more rigorous. Clearly, each time there’s a slip-up, the bar goes higher.”

Since the Jenkins case, television industry requests for background screenings have gone up 25% at Control Risks, an international risk consulting firm with offices in Los Angeles, according to Elaine Carey, national director of investigations.

Much of the new business is coming from producers who in the past had tried to screen contestants on their own by purchasing Internet specials that offer public records searches for $29.95 or by simply Googling them, Carey said. “Now they’re clearly stepping back and saying, ‘Is it worth getting caught out like this?’ ”

The topic is so hot that organizers of Realscreen Summit, a major convention for the nonfiction film and television industry being held in Washington, D.C., in February, added a panel on “Responsible Reality.”

“Judging from the headlines over the last year, if we didn’t address it, it would be like ignoring the elephant in the room,” said Barry Walsh, editor of Realscreen magazine, which hosts the event.

The focus of the panel will be on programs such as A&E’s “Intervention,” which has received kudos from critics for its thoughtful treatment of addiction. Organizers hope to spotlight docudramas that elevate their subject matter.

“The more of this stuff that happens, it just feeds this assumption that reality programming is lowest common denominator fare,” said Bob DeBitetto, general manager of A&E. “We’re all in the business of selling ads. This can have a chilling impact on pricing. You don’t want an entire genre to be weighed down because there are these unfortunate examples.”

Producers who make unscripted shows said the recent misbehavior by reality wannabes should not serve as an indictment of the form.

“It is probably, frankly, more stringent to get on one of our shows than it is to get on some scripted shows that are out there,” said Chris Coelen, chief executive of RDF Media USA, which produces programs such as “Don’t Forget the Lyrics!,” “Wife Swap” and “Secret Millionaire.” “You can’t control what your cast is going to do when they’re not with you.”

Still, many in the industry are studying the latest string of incidents and asking themselves whether anything could have been done to head them off. Bravo declined to comment on the Salahis and will not announce the cast for “Real Housewives” for a couple of months. The show’s producers, Half Yard Productions, released a statement saying that the Salahis told them they had been invited to the state dinner.

It was no secret that the Salahis were seeking to inflate their social status, however. The Washington Post reported that the couple, little known outside northern Virginia, campaigned vigorously to get on the program, creating a Facebook “fan” page for Michaele on which they posted photos of themselves posing with celebrities.

VH1 declined to speak about Jenkins, who was cast on two shows despite the fact that he pleaded guilty in 2006 to assaulting his then-girlfriend in Canada. 51 Minds Entertainment, which produced both programs, said the investigative firm it had hired to vet potential cast members missed his domestic violence record because of an error by a Canadian court clerk.

In the wake of the incident, VH1 President Tom Calderone promised to review the network’s vetting system, a move that other networks have also quietly undertaken.

Veteran producer Mark Burnett said many producers may not be able to afford the rigorous screening process he uses for shows like “Survivor,” considered the granddaddy of reality in the United States. Applicants are not only subjected to extensive background checks, in which their friends and family are interviewed, but must take the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a sophisticated personality test, and then meet with a team of top-flight psychologists.

“What I watch out for is if someone has applied to ‘Survivor’ and has applied to 50 other shows,” he said. “I don’t want someone who just says, ‘Pick me, pick me.’ Not only do I think it’s not right, I don’t think it makes good TV, because in the end they’re not there for authentic reasons.”

Still, nothing is foolproof, said Hirschorn, who noted that “there’s probably no psychological test that can vet for” incidents like “balloon boy.”

“People will go to pretty extreme measures,” he said, “to make themselves stars.”