"Balloon Boy Born of Reality TV"

October 21st, 2009

For two hours last Thursday, the nation was spellbound by the sight (and flight) of a homemade helium balloon drifting out of control. We were told that a six year old boy, Falcon Heene, had stowed away alone in the balloon’ s tiny compartment, and was headed for certain death should his Dad Richard’ s mylar contraption descend too suddenly from thousands of feet in the air.

CNN ran wall to wall, split-screen coverage, featuring telephone interviews with various experts. One of them, a noted balloonist, testified that the vessel was listing in such a way as to suggest that the compartment was devoid of a significant “payload”. Translation? Young Falcon was not inside. But that revelation only heightened the suspense.

The boy’s brother had said that he saw Falcon board the balloon, and later, a deputy sheriff reported that he saw something fall from the compartment in flight. Thus, our fear of a potentially fatal crash landing was replaced with a fear that Falcon had fallen out of the balloon, and was already dead.

Joining CNN in the chase was a huge contingent of law enforcement, military, and governmental entities, including police, firefighters, paramedics, sheriff’s deputies, the FAA, the Army, and the Air Force. Moreover, Denver airport, which stood in the balloon’s flight path, was temporarily shut down, causing delays. It was the most unique (and perhaps the most expensive) one day manhunt in history. So rare, in fact, that none of the aforementioned participants were prepared with a plan for rescue or extraction. Who would be?

Finally the flying saucer-shaped balloon landed softly about 50 miles from its launch site. Sure enough, Falcon was not inside the underneath cabin. Larimer County sheriff’s deputies had already searched the Heene house and grounds for Falcon, leaving the other pursuers to look for a body on the ground that might have fallen from the sky. But, as it turned out, the only falling Falcon did was asleep, or so we were told. It seems that after allegedly untethering his father’s balloon, the boy, believing he would be punished, hid away in the attic of his garage, then nodded off, and was unaware of the frantic search being conducted about him. When he finally came out of hiding, the world felt a collective sigh of relief. But the public euphoria soon abated, and turned to suspicion and anger following a television interview with the reunited family.

Mr. and Mrs. Heene, Falcon, and his two brothers all appeared live on CNN and were questioned by Wolf Blitzer. Asked why he didn’t come out of hiding when he heard everyone calling for him, Falcon replied, “You guys (his parents) said we did this for the show”. Oops!

Then a home video surfaced which showed Richard, not Falcon, launching the balloon. Oops again.

And then we learned that the Heene’s had participated in and twice won ABC’ s “Wife Swap” program, and were in negotiations with RDF Media to develop a reality show of their own. That’s three oops and you’re out!

The blogging world went nuts with speculation that the elder Heene had staged the entire hoax, and had instructed Falcon to stay hidden so as to heighten the drama. Richard originally denied any such scheme, but it doesn’t matter. At the very least, his lack of parenting skills (not knowing where his child was and giving his sons access to a dangerous aircraft), and his quirky lifestyle (which included storm chasing with the boys, and meetings with space aliens) made him responsible for a costly manhunt. For that, Richard Heene should make full financial restitution to all parties involved in the search.

And though Falcon was never in any danger from this particular balloon incident, he and his brothers are still at risk. Not just from their access to helium balloons, but from parents who take them along when driving into storms. And from parents who have encouraged them to be reckless, precocious, deceptive, and to act out for the cameras. That’s why in addition to making restitution, Richard and his wife should be investigated for child endangerment. And if Heene's hoax is proven in court, Heene should do a stretch in prison.

In the meantime, Congress has a golden opportunity to do something they’ve never attempted before. After decades of trying to pass laws and regulations to protect children from watching television, they should now enact legislation to protect children from appearing on television. Specifically, the new law should prohibit any child under the age of eighteen from appearing on an unscripted, entertainment reality show. Such a law will give all of the “Kate Plus 8” type kids of the world a fighting chance to grow up normal, instead of acting out in a dysfunctional environment for millions of people to watch, which can be harmful to themselves and to others.

The new law could be named for young Heene, and would send a message that such behavior by children (and their parents) brings with it serious consequences which far outweigh any possible rewards. So, here’s hoping that the Federal Balloon Boy Act will get off the ground soon.

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