When Reality TV Gets Too Real
On a recent episode of “Intervention,” A&E’s documentary series about addiction, no one was stopping Pam, an alcoholic, from driving.
As she made her way to the front door — stopping first at the refrigerator to take a swig of vodka for the road — viewers could hear a producer for the show speak up.
“You have had a lot to drink,” the voice from off camera said. “Do you want one of us to drive?”
Pam was indignant. “No, I can drive. I can drive,” she mumbled. She then got into her car, managed a three-point turn out of the parking lot and drove off. The camera crew followed, filming her as she tried to keep her turquoise Pontiac Sunfire between the lines.
Perhaps more than any other program on television now, “Intervention” highlights the sticky situations that reality-show producers can find themselves in as they document unpredictable and unstable subjects or situations. In recent years, producers and networks have increasingly pushed the boundaries of television voyeurism in search of another ratings hit.
At times, this has proved problematic for television networks. There have been several lawsuits related to shows like “Big Brother” and more recently, CBS found itself facing accusations that it had created dangerous working conditions for children in its reality program “Kid Nation,” in which children aged 8 to 15 toiled in the New Mexico desert to build a working society on their own.
In the case of reality-TV documentary shows like “Intervention” and the various incarnations of “The Real World” and “Road Rules” on MTV, producers can be witnesses to crimes, raising the question of when they are obligated to step out from behind the camera and intervene.
Sometimes the crimes they film are relatively minor, like underage drinking or fisticuffs. But in other cases, like on “Intervention” and VH1’s “Breaking Bonaduce,” in which the star, the former child actor Danny Bonaduce, got behind the wheel after he had been drinking and bragged how a car crash would make great television, the program’s subjects can put themselves and innocent bystanders at great risk.
And legally, producers are treated like witnesses: they bear no responsibility to intervene.
“The law in the United States doesn’t require you to step in and save people,” said David Sternbach, counsel for litigation and intellectual property matters for A&E Television Networks. “And it doesn’t require you to stop a crime that’s in the works.”
Often, of course, they have good business reasons not to: people on the edge make for good television. “Intervention” is one of A&E’s top shows. This year it has drawn up to two million viewers on its best nights. The premiere of “Kid Nation” attracted 9.1 million viewers but slipped the next week to 7.6 million.
The first season of “Breaking Bonaduce” helped VH1 increase its prime-time ratings in 2005, though they faded in the second season. And a wide following for “Cops,” Fox’s police ride-along reality show, has kept it on the air since 1989.
A&E said “Intervention,” has never been sued. And legal experts said that making a case against it or other documentary programs like it would be difficult because the subjects were being filmed in their own homes, engaging in activities that they would be pursuing regardless of whether a camera crew was there.
“This is their life with me or without me,” said Sam Mettler, “Intervention’s” creator and executive producer. The program takes other steps, like requiring potential subjects to undergo psychological evaluations and keeping a family member of the addict on call 24 hours a day during filming, to avoid being negligent.
To make a case for negligence, legal experts said, the accusing party would need to prove that the reality program created a situation that put its subjects in jeopardy. A “Big Brother” cast member sued CBS, for example, in 2002 after another cast member with a criminal record held a knife to her throat. CBS settled the case for an undisclosed amount.
When the sister of a woman who appeared on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover” committed suicide in 2004, the contestant sued the network for wrongful death and other charges. The contestant, who was competing to win free plastic surgery but lost, claimed that her sister had felt so guilty about mocking her appearance on the program that she killed herself. ABC settled the case for an undisclosed amount last year.
But if a subject on a show like “Intervention” or Fox’s “Cops” series were to injure someone while engaging in illegal activity, a case for negligence would be more difficult to make because producers are merely observing.
“Television producers are not policemen,” said Michael J. O’Connor, whose firm White O’Connor Curry in Los Angeles, Calif., has represented reality shows like “Survivor” and “America’s Next Top Model.” He added: “On a moral level, you get to the point where stepping in seems like it would be something you’d want to do. But from a legal standpoint, third parties causing injuries to other third parties is not something a television program is really responsible for.”
Being absolved of legal responsibility for his documentary subjects, however, does not make shooting the program any easier.
“I’ve had children of alcoholic parents there watching their mother in a drunken stupor, watching their mother pass out, watching their mother throw up,” Mr. Mettler said. “Those innocent children as casualties of their mother’s addiction was just emotionally heart-wrenching. The trauma of that is horrible, just horrible.”
“Intervention,” which ends each episode with an actual intervention, has arrangements with substance-abuse rehabilitation centers across the country that provide free in-patient treatment for addicts on the program.
“Morally and ethically, none of us can feel good watching someone hurt themselves or hurt someone else. And I’m not going to stand by and have someone who is drunk get behind the wheel of a car and kill someone,” Mr. Mettler said.
Mr. Mettler himself has had to step out from behind the camera on a number of episodes to prevent someone from driving drunk. In one case, he followed a crack addict named Tim through a swamp. Tim had crawled into a drainage pipe and threatened suicide, so Mr. Mettler had to talk him out.
And in another episode, Mr. Mettler’s field producers called paramedics after an alcoholic they were filming overdosed on the sedative trazodone. Laney, a wealthy divorced woman who drank half a gallon of rum a day and traveled long distances in limousines because she did not like putting her cat on commercial jets, swallowed the pills while the cameras were off. She told producers what she had done after they saw her chugging a bottle of juice to wash the pills down.
“Our first position is that this is a documentary series, we are there capturing real people in their real lives,” said Robert Sharenow, A&E’s senior vice president for nonfiction and alternative programming. “If there was an immediate danger, that was sort of our line. If the person was putting themselves or anyone else in immediate danger, then we’d cross the line.”
He added: “It’s a very, very delicate balance.”