Say you happen to have the rights to make a reality show starring an infamous couple who—in the name of getting on a reality show—breached security at the White House by crashing a state dinner. On the one hand: to put them in a reality series would effectively reward their behavior, and how, making them even bigger celebrities, giving them ancillary business opportunities, and telling other reality aspirants that no bad deed will go unrewarded. On the other hand: Ka-ching!
A dilemma, a dilemma indeed. You could look into your soul. You could talk to trusted family members and confidantes. You could fall back on the moral instruction you received from your religion, your parents, your upbringing in a civil society.
Or you could do like NBC Universal: take a poll.
Broadcasting & Cable’s Marisa Guthrie writes up a remarkable find: an online poll NBCU has conducted to gauge what kind of backlash it would get if it cast the Salahis in Bravo’s The Real Housewives of D.C. (or—the language is vague on this—possibly even in their own reality show). Among the “agree or disagree” questions: “Featuring this couple on a reality show would be rewarding their actions” and “They are train wreck characters who I would love to see more of.” (I suspect there is a large subset of the population that would answer “yes” to both.)
This is a little like a man sitting his wife down with a hypothetical questionnaire: “Agree or disagree, honey: Lap dances are harmless fun that in no way reflect on a man’s commitment to his marriage.” That is: if you’re even asking the question, it’s a pretty good indication of which way your thinking is trending.
It shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s pretty black-and-white proof that media companies’ approach to the ethics of their work is entirely situational. NBC Universal knows that it would be rewarding the Salahis for antisocial behavior. It just wants to know (a) if it could get away with it and (b) how badly its brand would be damaged by the attempt.
Am I a cynic for suspecting the answer to those questions are (a) probably and (b) I doubt the company really cares much anymore?