Add TLC to the list of networks who have discovered when it comes to reality-TV stars, reality isn’t always so funny.
The Discovery-owned network’s decision to cancel “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” one of its most popular shows, represents just the latest in a long line of public-relations headaches and nightmares surrounding the colorful characters cast in such franchises. Not all the dust-ups are created equal, obviously, but they include — just in the past 18 months — fraud charges surrounding “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” racism and homophobia within the “Big Brother” house, and Phil Robertson’s biblical ruminations triggering his fleeting (as it turned out) suspension from “Duck Dynasty.”
But honestly, why should anyone be surprised? The main reason these shows exist, after all, beyond the budgetary considerations, is precisely because of the combustible aspects of casting such personalities. So it’s hard to feel particularly sorry for anyone — producers, networks, etc. — when their “stars” wind up going off script.
Admittedly, actors are no stranger to scandal or controversy, which has become a rather stock defense of reality TV whenever someone raises such concerns. Performers say and do things that alienate audiences all the time, so it’s simply Hollywood snobbery, the theory goes, to single out the “real people” featured within these shows or hold them to a higher standard.
The problem with that argument is that actors are hired to play someone else, not themselves. Nobody hired Mel Gibson to drink and weigh in on his views about Judaism; he did that on his own time, which then burst into the public arena.
In many reality shows, however, the whole conceit is often built around the players ostensibly being larger-than-life characters. Being outlandish isn’t what they do, but rather, who they are. And even if a show like “Duck Dynasty” or “Honey Boo Boo” is as scripted, in some respects, as any sitcom, these programs are marketed and derive what distinguishes them from those unorthodox qualities, thus creating a delicate line between generating attention and ratings and providing days worth of juicy fodder for TMZ.
So without diminishing legitimate concern about the safety of children, it’s not mere cynicism to view TLC’s statement about canceling the show as a pretty good impersonation of the character in “Casablanca” who was shocked, shocked to discover gambling is going on, even as he accepts his winnings.
Having rolled the dice — and won, strictly in commercial terms — with “Honey Boo Boo,” TLC officials are no doubt feeling various emotions about having to abruptly part ways with a hit, but surprise can’t be one of them. Because by now everyone tilling these fields has to realize the occasional PR mess associated with reality shows isn’t a shock; instead, it’s just a calculated cost of doing business.