2014 will be remembered as the year American TV went on trial. I mean that quite literally. Three of the stars of Bravo reality franchise The Real Housewives have been given prison sentences for fraud in recent months, and earlier in the year another was arrested for an altercation on the show. In the last few weeks, American TV icon Bill Cosby has been accused of multiple historic instances of sexual assault by women, and his past and future TV shows have been pulled by Netflix, NBC and TV Land. TLC also made the decision to cancel their reality series Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo after star ‘Mama’ June Shannon reportedly started dating a registered sex offender. The reactions from the networks concerned have been variable.
Bravo appointed themselves unofficial court stenographers for the trials of Teresa and Joe Giudice on multiple bank, mortgage and bankruptcy fraud charges and Apollo Nida for bank, mail and wire fraud, following their court appearances on The Real Housewives of New Jersey and The Real Housewives of Atlanta and putting them on every conceivable sister show on the network before and after sentencing. It’s not exaggerating to say that the court cases have been the key interest for each of the series this year, or that Bravo has been unapologetically wallowing in their losses of freedom. The network has skirted around the issue of their guilt and culpability, wasting no opportunity to portray Nida and the Giudices as victims of circumstances, rather than knowing criminals
This is hardly surprising given how Bravo behaved when a criminal act took place on one of their shows. Porscha Williams was charged with assault after attacking Kenya Moore (or rather a tenuously linked appendage of hers) on the ‘Reunion’ episode of this season’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta. The end-of-season special brings the invariably estranged co-stars on to a studio stage and uses footage from the series (and typically social media baiting) to provoke conflict between the guests. The formula is such that violence of one kind or another is inevitable, and that the assault was less of a by-product of the show than a slightly cruder version of its desired effect. Bravo didn’t express the contrition appropriate to goading a person into criminality.
The different between the responses of Bravo and Cosby’s networks may be attributed to the gulf in the seriousness of the alleged crimes, but there could be more at stake. In 2012, it emerged that deceased TV personality Jimmy Savile, an entertainer equivalent in status to Cosby in British popular culture, had been one of the country’s worst ever paedophiles, a fact widely known during his lifetime but downplayed through his connections to the UK establishment. The revelations about Savile laid bare a culture of sexual abuse and assault in British showbusiness in the past few decades. Of course, I’m not suggesting that what Cosby is accused of doing is on the same scale as Savile’s serial child abuse, although both have a moral point-of-no-return.
I make the comparison because in their knee-jerk reaction to media-led allegations, Netflix’s decision to postpone Cosby’s special, NBC’s termination of a new Bill Cosby sitcom, and TV Land removing reruns of The Cosby Show from their schedules might be a tactic to draw a line under the controversy before it takes out any more of the entertainment legends their business depends on. There’s no reason to disbelieve the women who are coming forward to accuse Cosby, since they have all to lose and nothing to gain by smearing the comedian’s good name, but the networks have based their verdicts calls on unsubstantiated claims in lieu of a police investigation. If CNN’s reproach of Joan Tarshis is representative, it’s not about solidarity with Cosby’s alleged victims.
TLC cancelled Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo as June Shannon apparently resumed her relationship with Mark McDaniel, who was convicted of molesting June’s daughter Anna Cardwell. The network should be commended for sacrificing one of their most valuable properties in making a moral stance, but TLC’s rhetoric about their duty of care towards the Shannon children is disingenuous. A network statement said TLC was committed to ‘health and welfare of these remarkable children’ but they’ve never been conflicted about exploiting their socio-economic disadvantages for entertainment and, as E!’s TV review The Soup illustrated, the network haven’t made any interventions to prevent the children’s health problems. While Bravo is clearly the most exploitative network here, at least it doesn’t pretend to have anything but self-interest at heart.