A new reality show about capturing and returning kidnapped children might never "recover" from efforts to keep it off the air.
"Recovery" (search) — the latest brainchild of reality-show kingpin Mark Burnett (search) — features former military and government operatives performing surprise overnight captures of kids who have been abducted, usually by a parent who doesn’t have custody.
While Burnett, the mastermind behind “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” and “The Restaurant," characterizes the missions as rescues done with the help and knowledge of authorities, the feds say they’re illegal, and child advocacy groups call them “re-abductions.”
“They’re emotionally disrupting a child’s life, and ultimately they’re putting the child at further risk,” said James Beistle, executive director of the Texas-based Team Amber Alert (search). “It’s not entertainment, and it’s abusive to children. They’re re-victimizing children.”
The show's producers and CBS, which has reportedly bought six episodes of the show, have kept mum on the details of "Recovery." But according to most accounts, at least some scenes are re-enacted, even though the stories are real.
Among the show's controversial cases is one involving a little girl kidnapped by her dad and taken to a Latin American country, according to Beistle. The child is seized in the middle of the night and her father is badly beaten in the process, though the operation is portrayed using re-enactments, Beistle said.
“Baz [ex-CIA operative Bazzel Baz (search), the show's star] and his team of banditos interfere with other people’s lives to steal children,” said Beistle. “In his own mind, he thinks he’s a hero. As far as we’re concerned, he’s dangerous … This is barbarism. No one wants to see a parent beaten in front of a child.”
Such parental custody and kidnapping situations can be extremely complicated, and the children at the center of the fights are often overwhelmed by a tidal wave of mixed emotions, advocates say.
But one American father who’s been caught up in his own high-profile parental kidnapping nightmare sees nothing wrong with a show like “Recovery.”
Michael Shannon's (search) sons, now 7 and 3, were kidnapped in August 2001 by his ex-wife and Egyptian mother-in-law and taken from the United States to Cairo, where they’ve been living in an armored complex with their mother and grandparents ever since. Shannon has full custody.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s exploitative, as long as the child gets back where it belongs,” said Shannon, 43, of Maryland. “If the child’s been abducted in the first place, there’s obviously something wrong with the abducting parent … In the long run, it may be a couple of days of trauma, but the child will be better off.”
Other moms and dads in similar situations feel differently.
“For left-behind parents, abduction is not entertainment,” Maureen Dabbagh wrote about the show on the Web site she runs for parents whose kids have been abducted.
There are currently about 10,000 kidnapped children living overseas, and scores more in the U.S. who haven’t been recovered. A whole cottage industry has grown up around getting those kids back to their custodial parents, with vigilante justice-style services offering to snatch back wrongfully taken children for distraught moms and dads — for a price.
“If I didn’t know my sons were protected by armed guards and I had the funds, I would re-abduct my sons in a minute,” said Shannon, who has been approached by numerous such businesses aware of his case. “But I don’t want them in the middle of a shootout.”
The federal government’s National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (search) has come out against any reality programs using "commando-style teams to locate and snatch back missing children,” though the group avoided identifying “Recovery” by name.
CBS declined to comment for this story, as it and parent Viacom have consistently been doing for most press on the show.
But in an August New York Post story, Burnett lambasted those decrying his latest reality concoction, saying most hadn't actually seen the program.
“My response is simple: They don’t know anything about what we’re really doing,” Burnett told The Post, adding that the teams featured on "Recovery" consist of "really experienced guys … who do work with local law enforcement.
“These are cases where the paperwork is as thick as the yellow pages with court orders, clear custody for one parent — and a child in danger. These are heinous cases,” Burnett said.
CBS is apparently going ahead with plans to run at least six episodes of "Recovery," most likely beginning in January.
From an entertainment standpoint, one TV expert predicted a show like “Recovery” would appeal to a similar audience as that of “America’s Most Wanted.” Still, Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, is skeptical that the latest Burnett project will wow viewers.
“The problem with a premise like this is while it’s interesting … it’s really a depressing concept,” Thompson said. “I don’t know if people want to come in at 9 o’clock at night to watch a show like this … I wouldn’t put my money on this being the next big hit.”
Beistle said he thinks the pressure from organizations like Team Amber Alert is making a difference. He said he’s been told producers have stopped filming more episodes of “Recovery," at least for now.
But his crusade is far from over.
"Advertisers should be boycotted and advertisers themselves should avoid sponsoring it,” said Beistle. “It’s going to leave a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth for years.”