Last week's "Balloon Boy" story went from a real-life tear-jerker to an apparent reality-show hoax gone wrong, all in a matter of hours.
The Heene family had appeared on ABC's "Wife Swap," and apparently would do anything to get back on TV – even if it meant hoodwinking the entire nation into thinking their son was trapped in a homemade flying saucer flying high over Colorado.
But the Heenes are far from alone. With a little invention, and a lot of chutzpah, fame-seekers everywhere are doing almost anything for their 15 minutes of fame.
Take "Stripper Idol," in which former pole dancers show off singing talent. Or "The Interrogator," where contestants undergo torture while trying to keep hold of a secret. Or how about a show where an infertile couple gets to pick a sperm donor from a group of handsome hunks?
These are just a handful of the stunt shows that Dave Broome, president of 25/7 and the creator of such shows as NBC's "The Biggest Loser" has had pitched his way.
"Reality opened the door to a lot of people," he says. "A reality show doesn't need a script, it doesn't need more than a concept. People do crazy things to get on TV, and not just TV – look at digital platforms. We're a society obsessed with looking at somebody's 90-second clip."
"Shark Tank's" Daymond John, who is also the CEO/Founder of FUBU, says that since his ABC show's success, he's gotten approached with a balloon-load of bad ideas. "There was one called 'Hitched from the Block' and it had all these crazy weddings," he recalls. "A barbecue pit in a church, and the bridesmaids had barbecue sauce all over their dresses!"
But he admits that "the crazier these shows are, the more likely they are to get on. It's sad for them – but there are a lot of crazy people out there."
Producers require contestants to undergo a battery of psychological, fitness and background checks before putting them on the air, but – as VH1's "Megan Wants a Millionaire" discovered earlier this year – the crazy sometimes just slips through. That show was yanked off the air after one voted-off contestant murdered and dismembered his wife, ran from the law, then committed suicide.
"Generally the people who make the most interesting television are also the most … eccentric," says John Irwin, executive producer of MTV's "Celebrity Rehab," "Sober House" and "Sex Rehab." "You're walking a fine line between finding people that are going to generate interesting television, and also someone who's not going to cross over and cause trouble."
He recalls initially booking "The Real World: San Francisco's" Puck Rainey on "Celebrity Rehab," then dumping him before taping began. "He was not in a stable place to admit him to the facility," says Irwin.
And some contestants aren't just plain out-there - they're dangerous.
"We had opportunities to be in business with a notorious person, so we thought we would test the waters, see if we could get a reel together," recalls Will Stager, senior VP programming and strategic development at Dick Clark Productions, home of shows like Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance." "But then it turns out he's also a dangerous person, and you have to back out with kid gloves."
Even Stager, at a well-branded "Americana" company like DCP, isn't immune to hearing crass pitches. He once got one where an entire family would be punk'd that a loved one had died – only to have the undead person show up at the funeral. "That's beyond the human limit of what should be done to people. It's one thing if it's a prank by Balloon Boy's dad, but that's practically a human rights abuse," he says.
And someday soon, the Heenes may find they're not pariahs in the reality show community.
"It's pretty hard for stuff to be too crazy for TV," says Irwin. "I wouldn't do something for [the Heenes], but six months from now, I wouldn't be surprised if someone did. Who knows if the show would be any good or not? But people would watch."