reporting from fort collins, colo. The strange case of Falcon Heene took another twist Sunday when a Colorado sheriff said the boy's parents had staged the runaway balloon saga as a publicity stunt to score a reality television show.
"There is absolutely no doubt in our minds that this was a hoax," Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said at a news conference in Fort Collins. Richard and Mayumi Heene planned the caper for at least two weeks, he said, and are likely to face felony charges.
The sheriff added that some entertainment media might have been complicit, but he refused to identify them. One outlet, he said, had already paid the Heenes in connection with the balloon launch.
The Heenes deny wrongdoing.
The plight of Falcon, 6, touched off a bizarre whirlwind of wall-to-wall TV and Internet coverage after he was thought to have stowed away on his family's homemade balloon Thursday. Hours later, he turned up safe, saying he had been hiding in the family's garage. That left a trail of questions longer than the balloon's 50-mile flight path.
Yet Falcon is one of many children who have in recent months been featured as players in sensational, reality-TV-ready story lines involving what might be dubbed extreme parenting.
The trend may have started with Nadya Suleman, the California "Octomom" who underwent advanced fertility treatments and had octuplets. Her offspring will reportedly receive $250 a day to star in a reality show now being produced. Then there are the Gosselin sextuplets and twins, caught in the media glare as their parents' marriage disintegrated on-camera, turning TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus Eight" into a ratings smash.
As for the Heenes, suspicious eyebrows raised once it emerged that his family had been featured on two episodes of ABC's "Wife Swap," a reality show in which mothers from two families with distinctly different values switch places for two weeks.
Parents Richard and Mayumi -- severe-weather enthusiasts who were recorded ordering Falcon and their other two young sons into a vehicle to chase tornadoes -- were also reportedly trying to develop another reality series with RDF, the studio that makes "Wife Swap." (The new project, a spokeswoman said Friday, is no longer being actively developed.)
But the story line began to fray when, hours after the ballon escapade, Falcon said on CNN's "Larry King Live" that "we did this for a show" -- a remark subjected to wide and sometimes outraged interpretation.
On Sunday, Alderden called that CNN comment "our first 'aha' moment."
Falcon seemed to struggle under the media glare, vomiting during live interviews Friday morning with Diane Sawyer and Meredith Vieira.
"It's an utterly unique story," said Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC's "Today," whose co-host Vieira interviewed family members. "It had elements of a child in peril; there was a live picture of it; there was a mystery to it; there were details that continued to develop throughout the course of the day about this family."
Whatever the outcome, children's advocates warn that reality-TV producers and news organizations are exploiting children from exotic backgrounds for higher ratings. In the "balloon boy" case, TV news was rewarded for sticking with the story: As the drama unfolded Thursday afternoon, the cable news networks logged ratings roughly double their usual averages, according to the Nielsen Co. Some of the coverage was deemed so crucial it aired without commercial interruption.
From noon to 2 p.m., Fox News averaged 2.4 million total viewers. CNN had 1.7 million, MSNBC 768,000.
"What amazes me is how mindless the coverage is," said Paul Petersen, who runs the Gardena-based advocacy group A Minor Consideration and was a child actor (son Jeff on "The Donna Reed Show"). He has frequently criticized productions that he believes take advantage of underage performers.
Too many viewers, he added, "are sitting in the dark, caving in to their basest instincts."
Petersen says being the focus of intense national publicity can scar children. He cites the 1930s case of the Dionne quintuplets: The first naturally conceived quintuplets known to survive their infancy were taken from their parents and treated as a virtual sideshow by the Canadian government.
Many producers and journalists take different views of the Heenes and other recent celebrity-kid cases. Bart Feder, an executive vice president at CNN, said the balloon boy story qualified as legitimate news.
"This is what CNN does: It's become the place people turn to when there's something happening," he said.
Referring to the balloon's flight across northeastern Colorado and reports that the boy might be aboard, he added: "I've been doing this for 30 years. I've seen most things, but I hadn't seen this before."
A proliferation of reality-TV shows over the last few years has made it common to see real-life children struggling with difficult, sometimes preposterous situations, while the cameras roll for the diversion of viewers at home.
Two years ago, CBS premiered "Kid Nation," in which 40 children ages 8 to 15 were thrown into a reality competition on a New Mexico film set, with little adult help and almost no contact with their families. Some of the younger children were shown breaking down in tears from stress.
At the time, Petersen and other critics attacked "Kid Nation" as exploitative, but the show might seem less shocking today.
Besides "Jon & Kate," TLC airs "Toddlers and Tiaras," which follows the travails of juvenile beauty contestants and their frequently overwrought parents, and "18 Kids and Counting," about a brood overseen by a pair of strict, home-schooling Baptists.
Former child actor Danny Bonaduce ("The Partridge Family") hosts VH1's "I Know My Kid's a Star," in which parent-child teams compete to advance the kids' show-biz careers.
None of those programs is available in the Heene home, Richard Heene said last week. During the "Today" interview, when asked if he realized what a media firestorm his son's disappearance had set off, Richard said: "I don't have cable, so I had no idea what was going on."
The Heenes' natural role does seem to be more performance than observation.
TV insiders do not seem chagrined to note that the family's nationally broadcast misadventure continues, almost as a serial.
"It's a version of the high-speed chase, but on steroids," said Bell, the "Today" executive producer. "I don't think it's over yet."