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Murder-Suicide Case Shakes Reality Show Industry

August 24, 2009
By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

VH1 took one reality show off the air and will likely cancel another, this in the wake of a high profile murder-suicide case involving a cast member. VH1 is a unit of Viacom. Both reality shows are produced by 51 Minds Entertainment.

Ryan Alexander Jenkins was charged with the murder of Jasmine Fiore, a swimsuit model and former Playboy employee.

Fiore, Jenkins’ ex- wife, was found stuffed in a suitcase inside a trash bin in Orange County, Calif. Because her fingers and teeth had been removed, the authorities identified her from the serial number on her surgical breast implants.

Jenkins was a fugitive in his home country of Canada. He was found dead of an apparent suicide at a motel in Hope, British Columbia, a town east of Vancouver; this according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

VH1 pulled “Megan Wants a Millionaire” in which Jenkins appeared, when police first classified him as a “person of interest.” But the cable channel subsequently formally canceled the show. However, Jenkins also appeared on a second VH1 show, “I Love Money 3,” which was set to debut in January but will likely be shelved.

The murder-suicide case has reality television executives reevaluating the way in which their shows are cast. Contestants are supposed to be checked out before they are accepted for the potentially intimate reality settings, and the media exposure that frequently accompanies such shows has to be taken into consideration as well.

51 Minds apparently failed to discover that Jenkins had a prior criminal record, which included an assault conviction and misdemeanor battery charge. Normally this kind of information is revealed through a routine criminal background check.

The company indicated in a statement that if it “had been given a full picture of his [Jenkins’] background, he would never have been allowed on the show.” It also indicated that it was looking into the matter and “taking steps to ensure that this sort of lapse never occurs again.”

51 Minds claims that an outside company performed checks on all of the contestants, including Jenkins.

VH1 indicated in a statement that the company's “ultimate responsibility is what’s on our air, and in this case we immediately took the show off the schedule as well as off of our digital platforms.”

The cable network acknowledged that “something went wrong here” and gave further assurances that company personnel are "looking at the process to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Reality competitions are the rating leaders of VH1’s programming and much of cable and television fare today. Networks are also in the practice of using contestants from successful series on other reality shows.

No doubt the entire reality show industry will, in the future, be looking for ways to more effectively screen contestants with criminal records.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
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