'Real Housewives': Does Bravo know how to handle a real death on its hit show?

Following the reported suicide of the husband of one of the main 'Real Housewives' characters, Bravo has indicated it is either delaying the start of the fall season or reediting the hit show.

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In an unsteady stab at damage control, Bravo is scrambling to save its hit reality TV show, “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” hit hard by the reported suicide of one of its main characters, Russell Armstrong, Monday night.

The network president announced Friday that the second season, slated to return on Sept. 5, would be reedited and that no plans were being made to delay the show. Thursday evening, however, a spokeswoman sent an email stating that the network had confirmed plans – as reported in The Hollywood Reporter – to delay the next season of the popular Los Angeles franchise. On Friday, the spokeswoman called to say she had not intended to confirm that report.

Mr. Armstrong, a self-described venture capitalist, was the husband of Taylor, one of the show’s lead women characters.

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Reports of the pressures on the Armstrong’s marriage have mounted this week. Mr. Armstrong’s lawyer, Ronald Richards, has been widely quoted in Los Angeles area media. He told the Wrap, an online industry trade site, that the businessman who was still digging himself out of a 2005 bankruptcy filing, “basically spent all their savings … to support the show.”

Mr. Richards told the Los Angeles Times, “When you join these shows, you end up trying to support an imaginary lifestyle that's on the show. He was forced to do that because a character loses their brand value if they don't and diverts the segment on to other characters.”

Growing reports of physical abuse within the relationship have been fanned by Armstrong’s July interview with People Magazine in which he admitted to pushing his wife.

The mounting scandal has placed a newly harsh spotlight on a genre that has never lacked for criticism or conflict. Indeed, since the 2006 launch of the “Housewives” franchise, which has expanded to multiple cities and is one of Bravo’s most-watched, half-a-dozen featured couples have begun divorce proceedings, as well as filed for bankruptcy.

“We are in a growing culture of people who want to watch and be watched,” says Ben Agger, director of the Sociology Department’s Center for Theory at the University of Texas, Arlington.

But, he says, there is a cautionary tale for our times in the unfolding events around Armstrong’s death. As the reality television genre has evolved, he notes, it has continued to “deconstruct an important boundary between the public and private in our lives.”

The use of amateur performers inside a professional, profit-driven environment is ripe for tragedy, he adds, suggesting that a craving for quick fame and wealth, which often drives unprepared private people to expose themselves in these shows, is akin to a “form of pornography.”

People hand themselves over to be used by a corporate entity, he notes.

“If Bravo had any moral sense whatever, they would pull the plug on this show immediately,” he says, adding, “but the more likely scenario is that they will find a way to leverage the death for ratings.”

The cautionary tale in this narrative is with the aspirants to reality TV notoriety, says Tricia Jenkins, assistant professor of film, TV and digital media at Texas Christian University in Ft. Worth.

“Most contracts that participants sign for these shows allow producers to use their voice and images in any way they see fit,” she says, adding, “they care about profits and ratings, not about the private lives or personal reputations of the participants.”

Bravo has issued a statement expressing sympathy for the family but declined requests to comment further on Armstrong’s death.

“All of us at Bravo are deeply saddened by this tragic news,” the statement read. “Our sympathy and thoughts are with the Armstrong family at this difficult time."

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