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)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group