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.

Reed Saxon/AP
Marianne and Laurence Sunderland, parents of would-be solo round-the-world sailor Abby Sunderland, talk with reporters at their home in Thousand Oakls, Calif., on Saturday.
Richard Hartog/AP/File
Abby Sunderland

The parents of a Abby Sunderland, already under fire for allowing their daughter to attempt a round-the-world, record-setting solo sail, are being stung by more criticism for reportedly signing a reality TV deal.

Ms. Sunderland set sail last January from Marina del Rey, Calif., but got stranded in the Indian Ocean last week after storms smashed the mast of her sailboat, Wild Eyes, immobilizing it and knocking out communications. She has since been rescued and is on her way to an island off Madagascar. The near-disaster triggered a frantic international rescue effort.

Now her father, Laurence Sunderland, has revealed that before his daughter's voyage he signed a contract with Magnetic Entertainment of Studio City, California, for a reality TV show to be called “Adventures in Sunderland.” He told reporters Monday that the deal was off, citing disagreement with the show's producer over its direction, but a description of the show remained on Magnetic Entertainment's website Monday afternoon:

“We follow the family in their day-to-day lives as shipbuilder Laurence Sunderland and mother/teacher Marianne try to balance work and family. Their philosophy on building strong well rounded adults is to mentor their seven home schooled children into setting goals, creating a plan to reach those goals, and implementing them.”

The reality TV plan drew immediate criticism from family and child development experts, who raised exploitation concerns.

“Parental greed has now trumped whatever Abby Sunderland’s individual goals were in being the youngest to solo circumnavigate the globe,” says Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist and author based in the Boston area. “What may have been driven by ... Abby's individual need to garner this prized place in sailing history … has now turned into [Mr. Sunderland] feeding his daughter into the ugly, dark moneymaking machinery of family reality TV,” says Mr. Kendrick.

What started out positive – an example to help get other teenagers outside and off the couch – turned out very differently, says Dr. Ben Agger of the University of Texas, Arlington's sociology department.

“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.”

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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