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Behind reality TV's fame and fortune

Posted: September 1, 2011 11:30 a.m.
Updated: September 2, 2011 5:00 a.m.

For those of you who may be unaware -- or haven’t read any of my columns during the past year or so -- I love reality shows.

And I’m not just talking about competition reality shows, like “Dancing with the Stars” or “So You Think You Can Dance.”

No, I enjoy watching the pointless, drama-filled shows whose talentless, narcissistic cast members are plucked out of obscurity and then catapulted to D-list celebrity fame. I’m talking about trashy reality shows, like “Real Housewives of <Insert Random American City Here>,” “Flipping Out,” “Basketball Wives” and “Jersey Shore” -- yes, even “Jersey Shore.”

Because believe it or not, relaxing on the couch while watching a couple of quick-witted and hilarious “characters” -- ahem, Snooki  -- make utter fools of themselves on television is actually what keeps me sane on most days.

I will, however, draw the line at “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” I do have some standards.

In the world of reality television, there is no such thing as too much drama.

Most documentary-style reality shows feature an abundance of alcohol paired with a cast full of people with deep-seated issues.

The result?

Huge ratings each week.

It’s a well-worn formula that’s worked for the reality show industry for years.

That is, until Russell Armstrong, estranged husband of Taylor Armstrong, a “star” of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” committed suicide Aug. 15.

Previously painted as a villain on the first season of the show, the upcoming season set to premiere next week was rumored to have documented Armstrong and his wife’s marital and financial woes.

 “Mom, they’re going to crucify me this season. I don’t know what to do. I’ll never survive it,” he reportedly told his mother several weeks before he hung himself.

For viewers like me, Armstrong’s death was a sobering reminder of the devastating impact that reality shows can have on a person and their family.

Sure, most people find it hard to sympathize with reality show cast members. After all, Armstrong did willingly agree to sign up for the show, even if it was at the urging of his wife.

They willingly signed away all of their pride, dignity and privacy in exchange for huge six-figure paychecks. All they have to do is make witty remarks, drink large quantities of alcohol, argue loudly with other people, throw temper tantrums in public, and stab other people in the back.

Seems easy enough, right?

But I don’t think they ever step back and question whether or not it was really worth it until after their world has come crumbling down around them.

I don’t know if Armstrong’s death will make reality television producers step back and consider whether or not its viewers’ insatiable appetite for more drama is worth the lives of its cast members.

But considering the number of new reality shows set to broadcast on television this fall, I doubt it.

People are still showing up at casting calls by the hundreds, in hopes of using a reality show to launch a marginally-successful singing career in the future. (Or clothing line, they always manage to debut an ill-fated clothing line.)

As Elaine Liner, columnist with the Dallas Observer, said, “It's a media monster that creates its own reality. And it's a hungry monster that doesn't care whether the neo-celebrities that it creates thrive or perish as the machinery grinds on.”

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