This past week marked the tragic end to the lives of two reality television stars. On Feb. 14, Reeva Steenkamp’s death made headlines far from her South African home after her boyfriend, famed Olympic and Paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius, was implicated as the likely culprit. Steenkamp’s appearance on South African television show “Tropika Island of Treasure” (2013) followed soon after, with multiple memorials to its fallen star in its first episode.
And just on Sunday, country singer Mindy McCready passed away in an apparent suicide after a life battle with substance abuse, some of which was chronicled during her appearance on VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew” (2008).
While neither star died during the filming of their reality television show, their notoriety plays into the sensationalism of the medium. Reality TV, much like journalism, banks on the drama its contestants or main characters can bring. This is not to say that television producers are actively seeking such tragic occurrences, but they certainly can’t hurt the ratings.
Well, most of the time anyway. VH1’s would-be reality dating show “Megan Wants a Millionaire” never met its audience after a contestant’s death. The man in question, Ryan Jenkins, had been sought for questioning and later charged in the case of his wife’s murder. Subsequently, he disappeared and was then found dead in an apparent suicide in British Columbia. VH1 cancelled the show, later confirming that Jenkins had placed third. For the more sadistic readers out there, here’s the trailer to the series, which seemed like it would have been quite trash-tastic.
While some shows find their own ends in those of their stars, it is not surprising in the least that others profit. After all, they are promising viewers “reality” and death is an unfortunate element in all people’s stories. Still, it’s uncomfortable to imagine the effect reality television can have in playing into these morbid scenarios.
Take McCready, for instance. Her career had largely been marked by her relapse into alcohol and drug abuse. Meanwhile the show she appeared on completely centers on its stars’ tragic lives. While schadenfreude can be good and fun, and give an audience member some pleasure, it should not be so explicitly at the expense of the people featured on-screen. I find shows like “Celebrity Rehab” or NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” (2004) to be so utterly sadistic as to be almost offensive. When you create such shame for your contestants, what good are you really doing and what value is there in entertaining?
Nevertheless, some shows created very poignant, tasteful moments from the tragic plotlines of a character’s passing. The one that sticks with me most is the plotline surrounding Phil Harris’s death on Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” (2005). To this day, the show continues to document the dangers and death-defying stunts of commercial fishermen as they seek to make ends meet by traversing the often rough deep seas.
In the sixth season of “Deadliest Catch,” Harris died from a complications related to a stroke he had while onboard the ship he captained. Although producers wanted to suspend filming while he sought treatment, Harris urged them on – wanting his saga to be documented to its fullest. What resulted was a heart-wrenching plotline that gave credence to reality television as a genre, because this story arc brought to light the story of a man who may have otherwise been forgotten. Here you can watch the beautiful beginning to the show’s seventh season, which served as a memorial to the fishermen’s fallen colleague.
However, any talk of this subject would be remiss without mentioning the brave Pedro Zamora, whose struggle with AIDS was documented when he joined the cast of MTV’s “The Real World” for its third season. Zamora’s illness became a focal point of his season, and led to confrontation with housemates.
The plotline ignited controversy, as this was still at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and is largely credited for bringing greater recognition to the struggles of those who were HIV-positive or living with AIDS. While I was too young to have seen the show as it is aired, Zamora is a regular conversation topic to this day when talking about media representations of AIDS.
Just before the season finale aired, Zamora passed away – forever cementing his headline-making story as one of the most memorable in television history. MTV would later run a tribute to the fallen reality television star, a portion of which can be seen here.
“The Real World” benefited from the coverage brought about by Zamora’s passing, of course, but rarely engaged in storytelling that was overly exploitative. To this day, while “The Real World” definitively engages in the schadenfreude-laden voyeurism that is indicative of this genre, it always maintains the social responsibility begun by Zamora’s appearance. Whenever a housemate deals with illness, mental disorders, or substance abuse, the show’s producers endeavor to educate their audience on these issues and raise awareness.
While it remains to be seen exactly how Steenkamp’s and McCready’s deaths will factor into their respective reality series, we can only hope that the genre will take a look at shows like “Deadliest Catch” or “The Real World,” so that moments like these become something more respectful than just a ratings ploy.