"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
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
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
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
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.
Click here for a printable version of this page.
Back to Commentaries List