Charles Petzold


October 18, 2009
New York, N.Y.

Richard Heene has been featured on two Reality TV programs. The first was called Wife Swap. The second was Runaway Weather Balloon. Wife Swap is what we might call "real" Reality TV, in that it was created by a production company and purchased by a television network, and the world was alerted to its broadcast. Runaway Weather Balloon, however, was "fake" Reality TV, in that it wasn't unauthorized by anyone actually connected with TV. Richard Heene thought it up all by himself, and then it was sprung on us suddenly and without warning.

But here's what's weird:

Real Reality TV programs like Wife Swap are almost entirely fake. They're based on situations — wives of different temperments swap households, for example — that are as craftily contrived as sitcoms. Real Reality TV programs are often scripted, manipulated, re-shot, and edited into something not real at all. If real Reality TV were truly real, it would be unwatchable. It would be too real.

But a fake Reality TV program like Runaway Weather Balloon is actually quite real. For the millions of people watching the real-time footage of the weather balloon really flying the through the air with a six-year-old boy trapped inside, the emotional investment was very real, and we shuddered whenever it tipped, afraid to see the boy actually fall out to his death.

And now it looks as if Richard Heene — a fake actor pretending to be a real scientist — staged the fake Reality TV program Runaway Weather Balloon as a publicity stunt for a real Reality TV program, which actually makes him the star of a third Reality TV program (playing right now) that's more real than real Reality TV or fake Reality TV. I think it's called Idiot Dad.