Balloon boy goes bustTelevision looks like a powerful medium, but it is easily hijacked by bright, shiny hoax.
By: Clarence Page, The Dickinson Press
Television looks like a powerful medium, but it is easily hijacked by bright, shiny hoax. That’s why the apparent balloon boy hoax worked like a charm until the balloon boy, the appropriately named 6-year-old Falcon Heene, gave it away.
For more than two hours cable television news was captivated by the big silver balloon flying lazily through the Colorado skies like a fugitive Jiffy Pop popcorn bag. As one reporter colleague observed, recalling another riveting low-speed chase, “At least it’s not a white Ford Bronco.”
At least O.J. Simpson was in that Bronco. Balloon boy turned out not to be in the balloon as his frantic-sounding parents said he would be when they notified authorities and — oh, yes — news media.
W.C. Fields warned against performing with animals or small children. Balloon boy’s dad, Richard Heene, found out why when little Falcon spilled the family beans on CNN. When the boy was asked by his dad why he had not come out of hiding when he heard the voices of people calling for him, he offered a surprise: “You guys said we did this for a show.”
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden smelled a rat. Three days later he declared balloon boy to be “a hoax” and “a publicity stunt done with the hopes of marketing themselves, or better marketing themselves, for a reality television show at some point in the future.”
Brilliant. Richard Heene and wife Mayumi Heene could face felony charges, including contributing to the delinquency of a minor, said the sheriff. The parents were in so much trouble, Jay Leno would later quip, that the Heenes might lose custody of their kids to Britney Spears. Just kidding.
Yet they have achieved what the sheriff says this stunt was all about: fame.
Richard Heene used to be an actor. He put his family not once, but twice on the reality show “Wife Swap.” A few weeks earlier he was pitching his own reality show to the networks. Why not? “Reality TV” is just a nice way to say “human freak show.”
Try as I might, it is hard to produce a more fitting commentary on this scenario than the one little Falcon gave during interviews on “Good Morning America” and “The Today Show”: He threw up. For the second show, Mrs. Heene thoughtfully had a Tupperware bowl handy. Thanks, Mom.
One wonders, could the child have been sick, literally as well as figuratively, of being used to boost his family’s chances of being on national TV once again? Forgive him if he has failed to keep up with modern TV, where the freak shows called “reality programs” have produced an arms race of narcissists, eager to make their personal business public.
Small wonder that unscripted TV has become the last refuge of embattled politicians. Indicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has begun taping Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” to air on NBC in March. After a judge blocked him from NBC’s “I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!,” his wife, Patti Blagojevich, dutifully filled in. Also awaiting trial, Tom DeLay, former House majority leader, boogied down on “Dancing with the Stars” until he dropped out with two injured feet. Weird, yes, but worth it if it scores sympathy points with a potential jury pool.
At least Jerry Springer is honest about it, cutting through the usual TV etiquette to steer his viewers straight to the bottom feeders. A seemingly endless supply of cheating lovers, cheated spouses and other domestic disasters parade boldly into his spotlight, eager to punch each other and rip one another’s clothes off while the gleeful crowd chants, “Jer-ree! Jer-ree! Jer-reee!”
Just think: Had the ancient Romans invented television, we might still be watching humans become lion snacks.
Who is more worthy of ridicule, the TV stations that titillate us or we who provide the eyeballs? For all the complaints about cable TV bumping weightier matters, the boyless balloon brought a ratings bonanza to the cable TV stations, who replayed the windbag for days.
Maybe Adam Smith, guru of capitalism, was wrong; competition seems to have made commercial television worse. Programmers and news directors will race straight to the titillating bottom, if it brings bigger ratings.
Who can blame the Heenes if they decided to turn our easily distracted media to their advantage? We bought their story, at least for a few hours that, as Springer likes to say, we’ll never get back.
Look for a Heenes family book tour next. Just keep a bowl handy for little Falcon.
— Page writes for Tribune Media Services. E-mail him at email@example.com.