Can net afford to have the couple on ‘Real Housewives’?

With a White House review, a Secret Service investigation and now a congressional hearing exploring how the “party crashers” got in to the state dinner last week, where does that leave Bravo?

The cabler, which is planning to air “Real Housewives of D.C.” in 2010, finds itself in the midst of a reality TV flap — a familiar spot for many networks that have thrived on the genre yet have to deal with crisis management after the revelation of a reality player’s criminal past, embarrassing background or misdeed.

Still uncertain is whether the couple, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, who are prospective performers on the show, will face criminal charges. On Monday, the House Committee on Homeland Security announced it would hold a hearing on the security breach and that the couple would be invited to testify, along with Secret Service director Mark Sullivan.

Bravo has distanced itself from the incident, and it is hard to see where it would have any legal liability. But the network will have to decide whether to feature the Salahis, who undoubtedly would raise the profile and ratings for the show. However, the publicity could turn negative if the Secret Service pursues any charges against them. To some, the incident is an amusing case of party crashing; to others, it’s a security breach of utmost seriousness.

“The decision as to who will be included in the series will not be made for several months,” said a Bravo spokesman. “We are continuing with the production of the show. However, specifics with respect to the Salahis are yet to be determined.”

Asked whether “Real Housewives” producers are continuing to shoot footage of the couple, the spokesman said, “Nothing is scheduled at this time.”

According to a spokeswoman for Half Yard Prods., producer of the show, the couple said they were invited to the dinner and “we took them at their word and filmed their preparations for the event.” But Half Yard and Bravo said they had no part in securing their entry into the White House.

Given the limited budgets of reality TV, some producers on other reality shows privately said that the fact that cameras were following the couple indicated that they were already destined for the show — not merely under consideration, as had been suggested since the dinner.

The Salahis, through their lawyer, Paul Gardner, contend that they “were cleared by the White House to be there.”

The duo said that they will elaborate further, which created a new flap over where and when they will speak. An appearance on “Larry King Live” Monday was cancelled, and the Associated Press reported that the Salahis were seeking payment to tell their side of the story. A spokeswoman for the couple, Mahogany Jones, told AP that reports of their shopping their story were false. On Monday evening, NBC announced that the two are scheduled for this morning’s “Today” show.

The White House also released a statement from Michele Jones, a special assistant to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, acknowledging that the couple inquired with her about getting into the event but denying that she helped them. Whatever the case, the incident was the talk among reality producers on Monday, some of whom marvelled at the couple’s ability to crash the White House and at the same time garner publicity.

While acknowledging security issues, producer Scott Sternberg said: “The fact is, they did it and they have our attention. As a producer I am very interested in how this is going to play out. Could they be part of a show? Why not?”

Reality producers, of course, have faced harsh criticism before, leading to safeguards in the selection of contestants via background checks and even psychological testing. Eric Schotz, president-CEO of LMNO Prods., was amused that people were shocked by the lengths to which prospective reality contenders would go to achieve publicity. By their very nature of the pursuit of this type of fame, such reality contenders are “a little off,” he said, but “what takes a congressional hearing?”

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