Bravo’s the Real Housewife franchise, described by a reviewer as “interchangeable groups of affluent housewives — well-groomed, ill-mannered women who volunteer to drink, squabble and spend in exchange for reality-show recognition,” has come under fire after a recent tragedy.  On August 15, housewives husband Russell Armstrong apparently committed suicide, one month after housewife cast member Taylor Armstrong filed for divorce.  In the wake of this event, Russell’s family is reportedly contemplating a lawsuit against Bravo TV, the network that airs the show.  According to radaronline, Russell’s family “blames” Bravo for Russell’s death, even though unlike his wife, he may not have been under contract with the network.  Apparently Russell was unhappy with his portrayal on the show, and his susbsequent depiction in the still unaired Season 2 of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.  Regarding Bravo’s responsibility for this tragedy, the Armstrong family points to Russell’s disappointment with his portrayal on Season 1, his anxiety about his portrayal in Season 2, the dissolution of his marriage, and the damage the show caused to his career.

This would not be the first time reality television has been blamed for an unthinkable tragedy- in 1999 a jury held the Jenny Jones talk show negligent for its part in the death of Scott Amedure at the hands of Jonathan Schmidt. Schmidt had been a guest on the show three days earlier, where it was revealed that Amedure was his secret, homosexual admirer. Schmidt has apparently thought he was on the show to meet a female secret admirer, and shot Amedure a few days later, blaming the show in a 911 call.

It is less plausible that Bravo can be held liable in a suit brought by the Armstrong family for damages in Russell’s death. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is not the first installment of the franchise; Bravo may argue that at this stage, the buyer should beware and Russell should have known what he was getting himself into. Further, although Russell was unhappy with the way he was edited- he was not under contract with Bravo and could have walked after Season 1. Finally- unlike the Jenny Jones show incident, there have been no allegations of deception and deliberate manipulation of events. However, because Season 2 is still unaired it is unclear how those episodes will be treated. And juries are unpredictable. Bravo will probably want to avoid the negative publicity a lawsuit will bring them, and may be encouraged to settle either way.

What is clear is that this is a very sad event and should stand as a real wake up call to reality TV producers about the destruction these shows can leave in their wake. Even if Bravo escapes legal liability, hopefully they will learn to treat the subjects who have made them so much fame and fortune with a little more kindness.

— Alexandra Pichette

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2 Responses to Real Liability for the Real Housewives

  1. JL says:

    While I agree that this is a very sad event that should perhaps serve as a “wake up call” to reality TV producers, I am wary with regard to the notion that Bravo TV is somehow indebted to its “Real Housewives” stars in the kindness department, let alone legally liable. Sure, producers may strategically feature reality show clips in attempt to boost ratings. (Let’s face it: who doesn’t love watching a well-manicured housewife hurl a restaurant table at one of her glitzy co-stars?) However, I have a hard time believing that the show significantly morphs these “subjects” into something that they are not.

    Bottom line: Russell’s suicide is terribly sad. However, these are adults who knowingly consented to the show (the Armstrongs signed up for a second season!); to the best of my knowledge, they are garnering a pretty penny for doing so. (Consider the publicity accorded to Bethenny Frankel’s “Skinny Girl” drink line.) I have to say I’m with Bravo on this one: buyer beware.

  2. Carolina Blanco says:

    This whole situation has me torn. On the one hand, I doubt Bravo is legally liable – this is reality TV and we all know that inaccurate portrayals and embarrassment are part of the deal. But on the other hand, Russell Armstrong’s death is a tragedy and, at a minimum, Bravo should recognize their role in this tragedy and do everything they can to minimize any additional harm to Russell’s family. This is probably a good time for Bravo (and other networks with reality TV shows) to take a step back and reevaluate how far they are willing to go in the pursuit of “entertainment.”