Tragedy strikes reality TV again.
Earlier this week, Shain Gandee, of MTV's "Buckwild," was added to the list of reality TV stars who've died.
While his death was ruled as accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, what happened to Gandee turned the spotlight back to the genre's troubled history.
MTV quickly announced that the show would be put on hiatus, but many -- including the mayor of Charleston, West Virginia where the show is set -- are calling for "Buckwild" to be canceled. Twitter users echoed the sentiment:
.@mtv probably still won't cancel Buckwild after this. They'll dedicate half an episode to the funeral and follow it with a drunken mud orgy— Buckwild Is Trash (@BuckwildTrash) April 1, 2013
It's not just Gandee's death that is prompting calls for cancellation, though. Other "Buckwild" cast members have recently gotten into hot water: Salwa Amin was arrested for drug possession with intent to deal, and Michael "Bluefoot" Burford was busted with a DUI.
From the show's premiere, MTV has drawn criticism for exploiting the misbehavior of young adults. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin sent the network a letter complaining that it "preyed on young people, coaxed them into displaying shameful behavior -- and now you are profiting from it."
And "Buckwild" isn't the only sordid show in MTV's lineup. The cast members of "Teen Mom" have gone to rehab, engaged in domestic violence, gotten arrested, and even gone to prison. During its run, "Jersey Shore" drew plenty of criticism for its depictions of binge drinking and partying. In 2011, "Jackass" star Ryan Dunn died in a car crash while drinking and driving. So is the network somewhat morally responsible for what these stars get into?
"At its best, reality television documents real life, which can be educational, entertaining, and responsibly presented," noted Andy Dehnhart of Reality Blurred. "However, if producers or networks cast emotionally unstable people who cannot handle the pressures of production or fame; encourage or script bad behavior; fail to support their cast members financially and otherwise; or glamorize bad behavior in the editing or marketing instead of emphasizing its consequences, then we need to hold them responsible."
But Robert Thompson, who teaches television and popular culture at Syracuse University, cautions people against assigning too much blame to reality TV.
"We have to be careful about this idea that reality TV is the cause of all of our woes," he told Yahoo! TV.
"I will agree with the fact that the behavior on 'Buckwild' is often not good role-model behavior. I will agree that much of what was on 'Jersey Shore' was not good role-model behavior. I also happen to really like 'Hamlet' and 'King Lear' and 'Macbeth' and 'Romeo and Juliet,' and all of those plays are filled with really bad behavior."
[Related: Other Recent Reality Show Tragedies]
Reality series do have a responsibility for the safety of cast members, Thompson noted -- for example, if they are on an island in "Survivor" -- but questioned how far networks can go to police behavior when they're not filming or if they're between seasons, as "Buckwild" was.
Some tragedies do occur on set, like the two recent deaths on the French "Survivor" spinoff "Koh-Lanta." Contestant Gerald Babin, 25, died of a heart attack during the first day of filming, and staff doctor Thierry Costa committed suicide 10 days later, leaving a note saying that "false accusations" had been lodged against him related to Babin's death.
In the U.S. version of "Survivor" this season, many fans wondered how stringent the show's psychological screening is after contestant Brandon Hantz had an epic meltdown and deliberately brought about his own exit from the game.
But, as Thompson pointed out, destructive behavior is not confined to the reality TV genre.
"How many times do celebrities not on reality shows get arrested for drugs, get drunk driving charges, get into all kinds of trouble?" he said.
"Look at all the child stars that have come to very bad ends."
As far as the charges of exploitation, "Is that not the purpose of it?" asked Leigh Browning, who teaches media law and emerging media issues at West Texas A&M University. "People watch it, period. If we based content on quality instead of the marketplace, our TV offerings would be very different."
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