Does a TV network bear any responsibility for what happens to cast members on its reality shows?
Specifically, should MTV be held responsible for injuries suffered by one of the guys on its latest incarnation of "The Real World?"
As far as I'm concerned, the answer is yes. Although I'm not at all surprised that MTV doesn't see it that way.
"Real World" is the granddaddy of the "reality" shows that have popped up all over television since it debuted in 1992. Now in its 16th season, it's still the story of "seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped."
Seven young adults in their late teens and early 20s are chosen by producers (who are looking for exciting TV) to share a fabulous abode. They act like typical people their age — self-absorbed and overly dramatic — and the producers set up unreal situations to build drama, then edit the results.
It's voyeuristic entertainment that should never be confused with actual reality.
"Real World: Austin" (Tuesday, 8 p.m., MTV) got off to a rousing start last week when various roommates made out with each other, hopped in hot tubs and drank like fishes. (Ooooh — just what MTV was hoping for!) On their second night together, the gang went to a bar where Johanna turned into a mean drunk (for the second day in a row) and got in a fight with Nehemiah. He was sober and he left.
Johanna was too smashed to understand what happened, let alone explain it. Drunken Wes and drunken Danny go out looking for him and end up getting into a fight. Danny gets punched in the eye — a blow that fractures his skull and, as we learn later, not only requires surgery but threatens his vision.
And the cameras kept rolling. Hey, this was great stuff. On-site production staff did nothing to stop the fight. Production staff didn't even send Danny to the hospital — it was only because roommate Rachel, who's a nurse, insisted that Danny went to get medical treatment.
This isn't the first time something like this has happened. CBS and the producers of "Survivor: Australian Outback" came under some criticism when contestant Michael Skupin fell in a campfire, burning his hands so severely he was forced off the show— and the cameras continued to roll.
In that case, however, medical personnel were called in quickly and Skupin was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital. And, unlike the street brawl on "Real World," that incident wasn't something production staff could have seen coming.
And, given the string of incidents over the past few seasons involving people who aren't happy about having "The Real World" in their neighborhood, the production staff perhaps ought to include bodyguards.
It's not like producers haven't intervened before. They insisted one of the cast members of "The Real World: Hawaii" go to rehab because of her obvious drinking problem.
You could argue that this is some sort of documentary and no intervention is possible. But that's baloney — this is contrived TV, as anyone who's ever watched the show knows.
And, while I'm certain cast members signed releases absolving MTV and Bunim-Murray Productions of legal responsibility, I'm talking about moral and ethical responsibility.
But then expecting moral and ethical responsibility out of MTV is obviously asking for more than the network is capable of giving.