Time for a Reality Contestant Screw-Up Tax

Why should taxpayers foot the bill for those pulling a stunt to profit from a reality show deal?

I had a brainstorm.

I’m going to send my parents — he’s 81, she’s 79 — around the world with $500 and backpacks. They’ll need to find hostels to sleep in, panhandle for food. Maybe fend off pirates. I haven’t quite figured out how they’ll get their prescriptions filled. But my folks are adorable, smart and especially clever on their feet in tough situations, so they’ll probably do just fine.

And before they go, I’ll sell the rights for a reality show — as long as I get a prominent role in it as well.

I realized pretty quickly that Abby Sunderland was Balloon Boy H2O. In hindsight, you did, too.

Abby Sunderland Zac SunderlandBut thanks to the Sunderlands, I’ve come up with a way to boost our governments’ coffers while letting famous wannabes fulfill their narcissistic cravings at any cost.

My “Aha” moment came soon after the first reports that Abby was lost. The media had video of her brother Zac’s experiences; he’d completed the same trip in 2008 and briefly held the title his sister was chasing. (That’s Abby and Zac at left.)

One clip caught my attention. Looking like a bad outtake from “Paranormal Activity,” Zac moves in tight to the camera and mugs his way through an anecdote about a dangerous moment he’d survived with eye rolls, hair tosses, lip biting, grimaces and heavy sighs.

Oh, that’s it: He’s playing reality show participant.

Sure enough, media coverage from Zac’s return confirms that a show was one piece of a grand marketing plan being pursued by his parents, along with heavy-hitter corporate endorsements and a Zac-the-adventurer personality franchise. But all apparently went the way of Abby’s boat. Zac’s website currently boasts a self-produced DVD, a few discounted tchotchkes and press clips recalling past glory.

Makes you wonder about the real motivations and goals behind Plan B.

When Abby was lost, a PR strategy was ready to roll. It started with Zac as the sole family member granting interviews. Were their parents locked away, heartbroken? Or did someone with a creative POV explain that Zac provided the best natural narrative link whatever Abby’s outcome?

The elder Sunderlands then emerged post-rescue with a few carefully rehearsed media appearances. Not perfectly rehearsed, however. Especially when they announced that they were “broke” and wouldn’t reimburse the Australian government any of the $300,000 it had spent in rescue costs (about which Australian citizens are furious), but cavalierly suggested the U.S. government just write the Aussies a check.

Then, as we’ve come to expect, everything starts imploding.

The New York Post breaks the story that Sunderland senior had cut a development deal for multiple reality shows about his family back when Abby departed, and filming had been under way in L.A. for months. Hours later, the parents announce the deal’s canceled and they won’t permit any show to be produced in the future. Never ever.

Eh, then again, maybe not so fast.

Over the course of 24 hours through various media outlets, the Sunderlands keep changing their story. The show couldn’t be sold (although someone attached to it claims there was a deal with Reveille) so they took back the rights. No, it was because they disagreed on the series’ concept. Oh wait, it was really that “The producer was going to exploit me as a negligent father,” as father Laurence told Larry King.

Perhaps it was also that thanks to the media attention, the Sunderlands learned their production company appears to have no broadcast credits and lists a Santa Monica mailboxes store as its headquarters?

When King pressed as to whether they were open to another production deal, however, Sunderland clearly suggested they were.

Will it happen? Abby’s story is more compelling than her brother’s, but the public’s tolerance for obsessive self-promotion, particularly situations requiring intervention, has dried up.

The two-year timeline between their travels is littered with some universally despised names: Heene, Salahi, Gosselin and Octomom. Viewers are weary of rescue squads conned into false alarms and congressional committees stuck examining party crashers rather than terrorism and the economy.

But the Sunderlands’ utter disinterest over how much their daughter’s stunt cost taxpayers — any country’s taxpayers — gave me an idea.

Let’s have someone smart in Congress draft a bill that requires anyone whose exploits lead to deployment of federal resources for rescue, and who lands a reality show deal from the experience, to cover the costs.

Sort of a modern version of the Son of Sam Bill.

And let’s not restrict it only to those who actually get a show on the air. All it requires is a development deal completed before or after the experience.

Simply put: You screw us for your narcissism, you pay us back.

This might be one of the few bills to win bipartisan support.

And then, take the legislation – let’s call it the What’s Your Vanity Worth Bill – and apply it on state and local levels, too. Imagine how much the City of Los Angeles could put back into its suffering budget if reimbursed for LAPD deployment required by Speidi’s fabricated crises? Or what California could score from Abby Sunderland, who isn’t even considered mature enough in the state’s eyes to be behind the wheel on the San Diego Freeway?

Such a move will certainly make every self-promoter think twice before they call 911 or challenge the Secret Service.

I suggest all these reality poseurs also consider a contract deal point requiring their production companies to pay toward this penalty, too. Which in turn will make reality producers finally think long and hard about just exactly who their partners in crime, so to speak, are.

As a career publicist who loves a good creative PR stunt to win attention (and I have produced my share), I see nothing wrong with concocting some harmless gimmick to raise visibility or attract a deal. That’s Hollywood at its essence. But not when the price we’re stuck paying for it is my tax dollars or, as becomes more and more likely, someone’s life.