Balloon boy story and reality TV culture: What are parents thinking?

Parents' quest for reality-TV fame, from 'Jon & Kate' to balloon boy story, can be damaging to their children, say media watchdogs and child advocates.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Does the balloon boy story begin with the Heene family's quest to appear, again, on reality TV?

Given father Richard Heene's apparent efforts to pique Hollywood interest in his family as a reality TV subject (following two appearances on ABC's "Wife Swap"), concern is once again rising that the children who appear on such shows are being exploited for fame and fortune by their parents.

Child advocates, media watchdogs, and lawyers hope reform is coming, now that law enforcement appears poised to wade into the matter for the first time. Authorities in Colorado are considering charges against the Heene parents for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

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"Not until now has the authority of police of government gotten involved," says media analyst Richard Laermer, author of "2011: Trendspotting for the Next Decade."

The nation, indeed the world, watched on news channels Thursday as the family's homemade balloon, reportedly carrying 6-year-old Falcon, floated over Colorado for hours – but then turned up empty. Authorities now allege that the Hennes knew Falcon was safe at home all along and, in fact, engineered the stunt to promote the idea of a reality TV show based on the family.

The Heene case, following on the high-profile entanglements between two other families and reality-TV producers – Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children, and Nadya Suleman (dubbed octo-mom) and her 14 children – is the latest to prompt questions about reality TV's role in encouraging irresponsible parent behavior. This trio of families, observers say, is also bringing into sharp focus the question of how the entertainment industry deals with minors.

The scrutiny may be enough to shake things up, suggests Mr. Laermer.

"These three cases will surely change it, because, at this point, it's not even good for ratings," he says.

Such shows' promise of quick fame and the use of extreme stunts to drive ratings have produced a less-than-beneficial setting for young children, says Mr. Laermer. Families are treating their children like one more prop in their pursuit of a big payday or fleeting fame, he adds, and the children have no right or means to refuse participation.

"The reality genre has grown up so quickly. Many people have jumped in who have not fully considered the ramifications of their participation on the children," says Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education at the Parents Television Council. "They may not know or really understand what's going on." For instance, she adds, "how will they feel about being branded a brat or a trouble child in the public eye 10 years down the road?"

TLC, the network behind the show featuring Jon and Kate Gosselin, e-mailed a terse, "We will pass," in response to a request for comment. The legal affairs department at Mark Burnett Productions, one of the top reality-show houses in Los Angeles, says it has heard no rumblings about reevaluating minors' participation in programming.

But change is long overdue, argues former child star Paul Petersen, founder and president of A Minor Consideration, a child actor advocacy group.

"Children are chattel," says the Gardena, Calif., resident, who played the son on "The Donna Reed Show" (1958 to 1966). California, he says, is the only state where minors own their earnings. (The law entitling parents to their children's wages was changed in the Golden State in 2000.)

Improvements in state child-labor laws have come slowly. Even New York, which has seen centuries of children working on Broadway, has been slow to move.

"Why do you think most child-heavy movies and television shows are filmed in places like North Carolina, where the child-labor laws are lax or nonexistent?" says Mr. Petersen.

The eight young children in "Jon & Kate Plus 8," filmed in Pennsylvania for the past four years, did not have child work permits until this past summer, dad Jon Gosselin acknowledged recently.

Concern over the handling of the Gosselin children prompted the Pennsylvania Department of Labor to announce a review of its child labor regulations earlier this year, says Beverly Hills employment lawyer Kelly Scott. But more regulation may not be the only answer.

"Enforcement of existing law needs to be stepped up, and more important," Mr. Scott adds, "some introspection as a society about what's going on."

Advocate Mr. Petersen says he is hopeful that the concern generated by the Heene family's alleged actions might have an effect. After all, he says, "people probably don't realize many producers are more concerned about protecting animals on a set than they are children's needs. Spiders' and dogs' rights are more carefully guarded than children's."

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How did police crack the balloon-boy case? Click here to find out.

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