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Anything to Be on TV

Posted on Oct 19, 2009

By Eugene Robinson

Now we know the answer to one of the vexing questions of the modern age: Evidently, there is nothing at all that some people won’t do to get on television.

As proof: balloon boy.

I realize this is, technically, a nonstory. There was no boy in the UFO-shaped helium balloon whose runaway flight across the skies of Colorado last week riveted the nation. The story of the nonstory, however, is emblematic of our times. It almost seems as if the lust for being on television is in a league with our most basic human needs and desires—not just food, shelter and clothing but exposure, too.

It took just a few days for authorities to conclude that the whole balloon escapade was staged by the all-too-ready-for-prime-time Heene family. The aim was not to rescue a child but to win a time slot.

“It has been determined that this is a hoax, that it was a publicity stunt,” Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden told reporters Sunday. “We have evidence at this point to indicate that it was a publicity stunt done with the hopes of marketing themselves, or better marketing themselves, for a reality television show at some point in the future.”

Richard and Mayumi Heene and their three sons—including Falcon, the 6-year-old who was believed to be in the balloon—were already familiar with the swamp of embarrassment, humiliation and relentless self-promotion that is reality TV. They have appeared on two episodes of the ABC series “Wife Swap,” whose premise is explained by the title. It will come as no surprise that the Connecticut woman who came to live temporarily with Richard and the kids thought he was awfully casual when it came to parental supervision.

When the cameras aren’t rolling, the Heenes find amusement and togetherness as storm chasers and UFO enthusiasts. That’s what they claim, at least. It’s hard to know what’s real and what’s made-for-TV persona.

As everyone knows by now, after the silvery balloon finally landed in a field some 60 miles from the family’s Fort Collins home—and Falcon was not found inside—the family claimed the boy had been hiding in the attic all along. But Alderden doubts that story, too. “For all we know he may have been two blocks down the road playing on the swing in the city park,” said the sheriff, so profoundly unamused by the whole episode that he wants to file felony charges against one or both of the parents.

It’s hard to believe anyone would invent such a weird scenario—child floats away on homemade balloon—but Alderden says he reached his conclusion after interviewing each member of the family separately and searching their home, including computer files and e-mails. The children knew about the scam, the sheriff says.

It’s even harder to believe—on first impression, at least—that anyone would think this was a good way to audition for a reality show. But when you think about it, the Heenes’ instincts were right on target. They are perfect for a reality show, assuming they don’t go to jail.

Richard and Mayumi are telegenic and animated. The kids are comfortable as performers—after “Wife Swap,” they produced a music video that reminds you of the Jonas Brothers, except that the Heene Brothers are younger and without evident music talent. The family’s hobbies are full of action and make for great video. Chasing a tornado? Building and flying their own balloon? Even if the contraption was made of tinfoil, plywood and cardboard, as authorities said, it looked sleek and shiny on the screen as it zoomed over the Colorado landscape. It was convincing enough to make a nation suspend disbelief.

There’s a reason why the TLC network entertained a proposal from the Heene family before ultimately turning it down. There’s a reason why RDF USA, the company that produces “Wife Swap,” worked with the family earlier this year on a possible new show—now “no longer in active development,” the company says. Alderden indicated that he believes the family was still working with some unnamed network or production company at the time of the “balloon boy” extravaganza.

There’s one thing the Heenes apparently didn’t understand, though: Reality TV is a kind of parallel universe. It’s a realm of crazy melodrama and perfect white smiles—a place where craziness is good, irresponsibility is great and mendacity is rewarded.

Here in the real reality, that stuff doesn’t go over so well.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group


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By Mike, October 22, 2009 at 10:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Which is why I have refused to watch TV for the last 15 years, to keep nitwits from wasting my remaining precious time on this earth.

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By Anarcissie, October 22, 2009 at 9:57 am Link to this comment

Shooting television sets is something almost everyone wants to do.  And computers.  Years ago, I read of a sort of amusement park where you could do just that, and not only with a mere rifle or shotgun but a machine gun or a bazooka.  However, even blunt and not-so-blunt instruments would do.  Imagine responding to the Blue Screen of Death, or the television news, with a sledgehammer or an axe. 

Elvis showed us the way, with cathode-ray tubes as with music.

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By ardee, October 22, 2009 at 4:50 am Link to this comment

Anarcissie, October 22 at 12:23 am

You reminded me of an incident I read about while stuck in Bozeman. Montana awaiting a parts shipment for my broke down Harley.

It seems the police, responding to a report of shots fired, encountered these two rather intoxicated cowboys ( newspapers’ description not mine) who had not liked what they heard on their TV and shot the thing to pieces. They had then apparently brought a second TV into the living room, set it atop the now brutally murdered one and then shot that to pieces too…..

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By Anarcissie, October 21, 2009 at 8:23 pm Link to this comment

There is a legend that Elvis shot a television set because he didn’t like the program.  I don’t know whether he really did, but he certainly should have.

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By ardee, October 21, 2009 at 2:26 am Link to this comment

cmarcusparr, October 20 at 7:33 pm, Attributes the quote “kill your television” to Elvis. I couldn’t find such attribution but the phrase does resonate. Here’s a few I did find:

TV is chewing gum for the eyes.
  Frank Lloyd Wright (1869 - 1959)

Imitation is the sincerest form of television.
  Fred Allen (1894 - 1956)

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.
  Groucho Marx (1890 - 1977)

Thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative.
  Kurt Vonnegut (1922 - 2007), “Cold Turkey”, In These Times, May 10, 2004

It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper.
  Rod Serling (1924 - 1975)

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By UnchiNeko, October 20, 2009 at 4:45 pm Link to this comment

cmarcusparr- can’t say we weren’t warned—- Debord, Ellul, McLuhan. didn’t
george carlin say something about gadgetry wooing us-the shiny things that
could pre-occupy so that the darkest things could have their way. x wants to be
on t.v. so that x may have wealth so that x may be able to have the shiny things
that they see on t.v.—-and, with fame, hopefully get them for free… and for
what?  if push comes to shove, you can’t eat an i-phone or a lamborghini,
furthermore, for those who follow cnbc and the ilk, you can’t eat gold or
derivatives…everybody is being fed bullshit, which, unfortunately, many do eat.

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By cmarcusparr, October 20, 2009 at 3:33 pm Link to this comment

We’ve become a nation of spectators and bystanders in a culture of greed, consumerism and debt.

The narcissists among us who scheme to get on TV will do anything to get before a camera. The Balloon Boy story is a case in point. And for every wing-nut scheming to land a reality-show contract, there is a television producer willing to offer one.

We live in the Land of Exploitation. All of us are subjects, enslaved if you like, to the ubiquitous media. It’s there in our homes, on our laptops, in our iPods and iPhones; there at airports, hotels, in public gathering places, even in the public rest room. The telegenic totalitarians of George Orwell’s novel 1984 don’t hold a candle to our media-controlling puppet masters.

What’s the solution? To quote Elvis: “Kill your television.”

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By gerard, October 20, 2009 at 3:16 pm Link to this comment

Something is screwy.  We get all exorcised about a crazy Dad who puts together a homemade “saucer” and, letting it be assumed that his kid is on board, lauches it and dominates national TV for a couple hours.  Yet a war drags on for eight years, led by crazy militarists who put together all kinds of real killer weapons and let it be assumed that our kids must go half way around the world and shoot people, and it dominates national TV every day for eight years and we don’t put a stop to it.

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By UnchiNeko, October 20, 2009 at 1:27 pm Link to this comment

ardee—- Mr. Robinson appears on MSNBC quite frequently.

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By ardee, October 20, 2009 at 1:23 pm Link to this comment

By @CT, October 20 at 11:12 am #

“Here in the real reality, that stuff doesn’t go over so well.”

... opines the unctuous Robinson, who’ll do anything to be on teevee.


I have never seen Mr. Robinson on TV. Have you? If so where and when?

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By UnchiNeko, October 20, 2009 at 1:13 pm Link to this comment

I beg that the film “Network” be revisited by those who have not viewed it in a
while—-and for those who have never seen it, please watch. Much insight is to be
found in this work—-I also submit the work of one Mr. Joey Skaggs—-

as, John Lydon once said, “The media is the enemy.”

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By WriterOnTheStorm, October 20, 2009 at 10:30 am Link to this comment

Are those currently piling aspersions upon the audacious Heenes simply overlooking the fact that
their enterprise required the collusion of a cynical, venal, and opportunistic media?

As I recall, when the infamous Son of Sam case was in the news, the police received hundreds of
phony confessions. America has always had a sideshow dimension. Folks like the Heens aren’t new.
What’s different now is that the circus has gone primetime. Does anybody really think the Heenes
pulled one over on poor old gullible CNN?

This story only got interesting once the hoax was revealed (should have been obvious to all that the
balloon contained nothing but hot air, but where’s the fun in that?). But it wasn’t the Heenes taking
the media for ride. It was the media taking their viewers for a ride. Richard Heene understood this.
We should all be thanking him and his ambitious family for showing us just how low our news
organizations will go in search of “human interest”.

The Heenes will, as they must, be portrayed as villains by the media, but they should be regarded as
folk heros by the public.

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By Jack, October 20, 2009 at 9:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I expect Mr. Robinson has not seen the music video (available on YouTube) he alludes to or he would comment on the content.  It’s unclear who wrote the song, but a few quotes noted in a post by Pam Spaulding (and comments) might help us better understand what these parents are,

“I hate gay faggots, I hit ‘em with a bat,”

“I looked up in the tree, what do I see? I see faggots trying to pee on me. So I picked up a rock, threw it at his (shows picture of a rooster, i.e. cock while the child roars and growls) The rest is very garbled, but it sounds like, “He fell to the floor, and (something-something) fell off. Took him to the doctor, the doc said sorry about that, HE’S DEAD”

The video also has one of the small kids covered in what is supposed to look like diarrhea, sitting in a toilet. I guess his father taught him how to crawl in the toilet.

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By Louise, October 20, 2009 at 8:38 am Link to this comment

“It’s even harder to believe—on first impression, at least—that anyone would think this was a good way to audition for a reality show. But when you think about it, the Heenes’ instincts were right on target. They are perfect for a reality show, assuming they don’t go to jail.”


Right on target is right! The Heenes’ are the inevitable product of a society of consumers eager to consume fantasy as reality. Little wonder the adults in the Heene family cant grasp the difference.

No fault on the kids, that fantasy is their reality!

Jail time would be a waste of time. But there is a huge bill to be paid, so it seems to me it would make more sense to put the Heenes’ to work, real work, to pay those bills. Meanwhile they need serious counseling lest they screw their kids up any more.

Actually who’s to say the kids are screwed up? Most kids I know who are their age revel in the happy world of fantasy. Time alone will let them see and grow into the ugly world of real reality.

By the way, I quite enjoyed watching that saucer float across the sky. And I was enormously relieved when they found the little boy wasn’t in there. Had he been he probably would have been frozen to death.

And suspicious about the apparent lack of terror coming from mom and dad. But then again, given their passion for the unreal, maybe there simply isn’t such a thing as feeling terror in their make-up.

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By @CT, October 20, 2009 at 7:12 am Link to this comment

“Here in the real reality, that stuff doesn’t go over so well.”

... opines the unctuous Robinson, who’ll do anything to be on teevee.

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By joedee1969, October 20, 2009 at 2:39 am Link to this comment

This is a sickness passed down by the boomers. Being on Tv and all the things like passing down this generational debt:

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