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Abby Sunderland sailing ordeal: A new low for reality TV?

The parents of teen sailor Abby Sunderland, who was rescued this week after attempting to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe alone, drew more criticism as word of a reality TV deal surfaced.

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“Testing of limits is a good motivation and I like the idea of being encouraged to take risks,” Mr. Agger says. “But when I find out some of these are thinly-veiled attempts by parents to beef up their kids’ eventual college applications – and now this TV deal which reveals even deeper motivations to economically exploit children – I can put no other face on this than to call it pathetic.”

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This episode reflects the phenomenon that philosopher Christopher Lasch warned about back in the 1970s, Agger says: America’s developing “culture of narcissism." “When you see this kind of hubris and arrogance mixed with the profit motive, it’s hard to avoid piling on," he says.

Reality TV has drawn its share of the criticism since bursting onto the media landscape in the 90s. But more recent shows, including TLC's Jon & Kate Plus 8, have upped the ante. “It is a sad reflection on the media industry that programmers will stoop so low as to exploit kids for profit," says Jeff McCall, a professor media studies at Depauw University. "I am saddened that major networks have so little moral compass,” he says.

“Audiences must reject this kind of programming by not watching it, thus hoping that producers will get the message,” says Mr. McCall. “Media consumers should also contact advertisers who support these programs to express their displeasure.”

But Dave Czesniuk, director of operations at the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University, says that everyone should not be so quick to pile on. The show was "a chance to see what the challenges of sailing are doing to the family and to Abby,” he says. “She is obviously not a typical 16-year-old and this [may have given] clues to whether her goals represent inspiration, enlightenment, or overreaching. It might hint at the cost to normalcy that this sailing project represents,” he adds.

The young Sunderland has been blogging from her rescue boat, and says she plans to write a book chronicling her journey.

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