TV Ethics Questioned After ‘Real Housewives’ Suicide

Monday, 22 Aug 2011 09:08 AM

By James Hirsen

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The recent suicide of "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" reality TV star Russell Armstrong is drawing attention to the issue of the media's ethical responsibilities, particularly the duties of those who are involved in the casting and production of the programs.

Reality shows are inexpensive to make, and they draw huge audiences. As a result, they have infused the network and cable television industries with mega-profits.

One of the major problems with reality programming is that, with the exception of celebrity-based shows, individuals who play the starring roles are not actors themselves. Rather, they are ordinary folks, usually with a compelling backstory with which to entertain TV viewing audiences.

Being ordinary folks, they oftentimes experience the exhilaration of attaining a high degree of success, which in current societal terms is predominantly defined by fame and its attendant fortune.

However, ordinary folks who find themselves thrust into the spotlight, regardless of whether or not they have aggressively sought it out, are seldom ready for the downside of celebrity. And as we know from some of the more prominent tragic celebrity cases that have played out in the media, the downside of celebrity is a very real part of the entire dynamic and many times not worth the price that individuals involved end up paying.

For programs of the “Real Housewives” variety, in order to be successful participants must endure the constant watchful eye of the camera, and life's trials and tribulations when exaggerated make for the best ratings.

Cast members very often are psychologically, and emotionally unprepared for the adulation, and more seriously, the negative opinions, scorn, ridicule, and the like, which may be components of the programming and the media industry that surrounds it.

Armstrong, a venture capitalist who was found dead at a Mulholland Drive mansion, was very concerned about the manner in which he was being portrayed to the reality show audience. According to his mother, he had revealed to her that “they’re [the show's producers] just going to crucify me this season. I don’t know what to do. I’ll never survive it.”

Armstrong was so concerned about his separation from his wife Taylor, which was displayed on the show, that he reportedly sent a lawyer letter to cast members warning them not to discuss his marital problems during the episodes. The letter was later withdrawn.

Armstrong’s mother also revealed that her now-deceased son told her, “All the network cares about are ratings. They don’t care if people are hurt, or if it destroys their marriage.”

“I watched it slowly destroy their marriage,” Armstrong's mother said.

In the hyper-competitive world of television today, ethical considerations may not be a priority, but they should be. Because in reality-show programming, the key word is reality, and what is irrevocably damaged in reality, no amount of entertainment will ever bring back.

James Hirsen, J.D., M.A. in media psychology, is a New York Times best-selling author, media analyst, and law professor. He is admitted to practice in the U.S. Supreme Court and has made several appearances there on landmark decisions. Hirsen is the co-founder and chief legal counsel for Visit Newsmax TV Hollywood:

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