Reality TV Bites

Shani and Chad Walter lost one of their twin baby boys. Thanks to Houston Medical, thousands of Americans got to witness their pain.

The hospital proudly hung banners all over the building announcing its prime-time debut and participated in countless fluff pieces with both Channel 13 and the Chronicle (although the Walter family tried numerous times to tell their story to Channel 13 and the Chronicle, e-mails and calls the couple made were not answered).

Mary Sharkey, who appeared with Berry at the unveiling of the Save Houston Medical Web site and who was profiled on the show fighting pancreatic cancer, says that while she feels for the Walter family, she had a completely different experience with New Screen. After being put in touch with the production company by her doctor at Memorial Hermann, the company came out to her house without cameras and spent time talking to her about taking part in the project. Sharkey says the company was clear that the show would focus on her personal life and her family. They gave her time to think over the project and get her family's input, and they told her that if she ever felt uncomfortable, she could stop taking part in the filming -- something the Walter family says they never heard.

"The producers became like family," says Sharkey, 50, whose cancer is now in remission. "They became my biggest cheerleaders." When the producers came to film a party at her house, Sharkey says, the producers even helped style her daughter's hair. She has been overwhelmed with the cards of support she has received from all over the country, and says she hopes to serve as a sign of hope for others battling cancer.

ABC's promo for the show pictured Shani weeping at Nathan's bedside. Viewers could download the clip from a Web site.
ABC's promo for the show pictured Shani weeping at Nathan's bedside. Viewers could download the clip from a Web site.

But while she has nothing but positive things to say about her experience, Sharkey admits she had much more time to mull over being part of a reality show than the Walters did.

"I don't know how I would have reacted in an emergency situation," she says. "My heart goes out to the Walter family."

While Michael Berry has drummed up support for Houston Medical in the Bayou City, reaction nationwide has been more lukewarm. In his review of the show's first episode, TV Guide critic Matt Roush wrote that he was "appalled at the shallow, tasteless exploitation of a mother who is shown weeping over the dying form of one of her prematurely born twins."

Roush says he had to watch only the first two episodes to decide he'd seen enough. The Walter family's story especially bothered him because there was no context applied to the high drama.

"You didn't get to know the family well enough," says Roush. "It looked like they were just using them for dramatic effect."

But Roush thinks that shows like Houston Medical are here to stay -- along with a host of other reality television shows shot in hospitals, including ICU: Arkansas Children's Hospital, also on ABC, and Maternity Ward and Trauma: Life in the ER on The Learning Channel. There's also been a tremendous surge of reality TV shows shot in the courtroom, including State v. and Crime & Punishment, which has been packaged to look exactly like the hit drama Law & Order -- complete with the familiar white lettering on a black background and booming sound effects that introduce each segment.

According to Roush, reality TV and popular programs like NBC's Dateline (which often focuses on actual crimes with a pulp-fiction approach) have taken over our airwaves because they're relatively cheap to make and appeal to the voyeur in all of us. Roush says the networks have been so successful with these shows that they don't worry about showing many movies anymore. In fact, NBC has done away with its Movie of the Week division because it can run a Dateline episode featuring a real event instead.

"Why pay Tori Spelling to play the part of someone when you've got the actual person to walk you through it?" says Roush.

And while Roush doesn't despise all reality TV (he admits MTV's The Osbournes has a certain kind of charm), he feels most of these programs offer a contrived, heightened sense of reality and do little of the educating they claim to do.

That's something that bothers Gregory Larkin, an emergency room physician at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Larkin, who is so frustrated by much of what's on the air that he doesn't own a television, recently co-authored "Commercial Filming of Patient Care Activities in Hospitals" for the July 17 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"Just because we can do it doesn't mean we should show it," says Larkin, who adds that he is disgusted with shows like Houston Medical and says hospitals that participate in such programs are doing so for the immense free publicity.

"It's a great opportunity to put their best foot forward," says Larkin. "But it's a complete aberration of their responsibilities."

Joel M. Geiderman, a physician in emergency medicine at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles and Larkin's co-author, says Memorial Hermann's treatment of the Walter family is unconscionable.

"It's a ridiculous stance," says Geiderman of the hospital's claim that the troubles are between New Screen and the Walters alone. "The hospital has an obligation to protect the patient. The hospital is private property, and the company was only there because the hospital allowed it." Geiderman adds that patients who are asked to sign consent forms become part of a power play they could never win. Like the Walters, Geiderman says patients often feel compelled to participate in a production so they don't offend the doctor or hospital.

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