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Who's responsible when reality TV goes too far?

"Teen Mom" and "Toddlers & Tiaras" have recently featured segments viewers call disturbing and potentially abusive, yet the crew never stepped in to stop the alleged violence.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

“Reality TV is like a cardiogram. It takes snapshots of the heart of America.” That’s what Robert Galinsky, founder of The New York Reality TV School, believes.

Right now, the heart of America is under attack. Yes, Snooki is a New York Times best-selling author — but what's really outraging people is coming not from “Jersey Shore,” but from MTV’s “Teen Mom” and TLC’s “Toddlers & Tiaras.”

In case you haven’t been keeping up, “Teen Mom” Amber Portwood was shown beating up her then-fiance (who did not strike back) in front of their young daughter during season two, while a 5-year-old “Toddler” howled in pain and fear while being forced to get an eyebrow wax a few weeks ago.

Cry for help
Someone get the defibrillators. Such disturbing scenes burned up message boards, as readers posted concerns and wondered just who was responsible for the questionable behavior on a reality TV show set.

“What’s unreal is that MTV and the show’s crew and producers didn’t intervene at any time,” said Adrian-2844900 on the message boards, referring to the "Teen Mom" segment.

Echoed Jules-1545537, “I … feel it is (TLC’s) responsibility to turn over footage (of the eyebrow wax) as evidence of this abuse, that way, (Child Protective Services) can decide if it is abuse or not.”

But are the producers or the network really to blame for what goes on the air? They may have final say, but should they not air material that is potentially upsetting?

After MTV aired footage of the now 20-year-old Portwood repeatedly slapping and punching her ex, police in her home state of Indiana arrested and charged her with two felony counts of domestic battery and one felony count of neglect. The neglect charge was made because the couple's daughter, Leah, was present during the alleged abuse. Portwood could face three years in jail plus fines if convicted.

The answer to who is responsible for curbing or stopping extreme acts is far from clear cut.

'A thrilling line'
In the case of both “Teen Mom” and “Toddlers & Tiaras,” there were a raft of hired professionals witnessing these behaviors who opted not to intervene — not on set, in the editing room or before the shows aired. The FCC may set rules for any swearing, but it has no say over a cast member's fists hitting another person or a mom forcing her child to go through a painful beauty procedure. MTV declined interviews for this report.

It made for exciting television, though — and that’s what reality producers are really hired to create. “Good TV,” in their parlance, often walks a fine line between not enough and too much.

“It’s a thrilling line to walk,” said Galinsky. “It’s very titillating to let something unfold in front of our eyes and see it take on amazing proportions. The more producers, directors and the production team walk that line, the more exciting it is going to be for us at home.”

It also makes for ratings: “Teen Mom’s” latest season reached a series high in January, with 4 million viewers tuning in — 3 million of them in MTV’s target demographic of 12- to 34-year-olds. “Toddlers & Tiaras” routinely draws more than 1 million viewers (its 2010 summer premiere pulled in 1.2 million watchers), which is solid news for TLC.

“I’m looking for one thing only: Will people watch?” said Roy Bank, president of Merv Griffin Entertainment. “If they watch, advertisers buy time and the show stays on the air. I’ve never produced a show that was designed to be educational, and I’m someone who executive-produced, ‘Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader.’ ” Bank also oversaw “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” among other shows.

Windows into another world
Legally, the First Amendment — and previous case law — tends to protect producers and networks because it’s nearly impossible to connect the presence of cameras to the behavior that they film. Routinely, producers insist that behavior would have gone on whether or not a film crew was present.

Tom Rogan, executive producer of “Toddlers & Tiaras,” said his cameras only open a window onto an otherwise unexplored world.

“These stories should be told, and if it raises some other issues that people have, that discussion is a good discussion,” he said. “But taking it out on a show or saying that this exists because of the show, is in a way censorship. Everybody has a right to their opinions, and if people are going to judge other people, that’s something they should take up with those people. It’s not necessarily about the show itself.”

Message-board posters say they have tried to take action: After witnessing the eyebrow-wax footage in particular, many called the National Child Abuse Hotline, which could only advise them to report the alleged abuse in the state where it occurred.

“We advise that they write a letter or take some kind of action on their own behalf,” said hotline director Susan Schmidt. “By law, we can’t make a third-party report. We just encourage people to advocate.”

Without legal recourse or guidelines, producers tend to say they would of course behave ethically and do the moral thing should a situation get out of hand.

Sometimes, the networks do step in. During season eight of MTV's "Real World: Hawaii," cast member Ruthie had too much to drink. A roommate offered to pay her cab fare home, but the 21-year-old instead took some friends on a drunken joy ride. The next day, the supervising producer and director had a private meeting with Ruthie and required her to see an addiction specialist if she wanted to stay on the show.

'We don't want censorship'
But a genre that encourages the casting of outsized or unstable personalities, in search of the “titillation” of extreme situations and therefore higher ratings, has little incentive to ponder moral dilemmas until after the cameras stop filming.

“Ethically, these programs and producers should be much more circumspect,” said Richard Goedkoop, professor of communications at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “When they are not, they are usually motivated by audience appeal and ratings than any concern for the participants or audience.”

Yet it is possible to make a show with volatile personalities and minors in which abuse is not the rallying cry for its cancellation.

Dan Peirson is executive producer of CMT’s “World’s Strictest Parents,” and he said their casting process includes “a lot of vetting to make sure everyone’s safety is assured. Something that’s made clear to everyone from the outset is that no one is allowed to lay hands on another person. You take as many steps as you can, and try not to expose anyone to undue risk.”

“Legally, we don’t want censorship,” said Jennifer L. Pozner, author of “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV.” “But ethically, we absolutely need some transparent standards as to what is, and what isn’t, appropriate use of the public airwaves.”

Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion.”