Friday, September 2, 2016

The Reality of "Reality TV"

By C.J. Hirschfield

Children’s Fairyland has been approached to be the location of reality TV shows exactly four times. We’ve graciously declined three times, and just learned that we probably should have said no to the fourth as well.

We passed on a show called “Shipping Wars,” a series that first aired in 2012, and that follows various independent carriers who specialize in nontraditional loads. We did have a donated ride from New Jersey we were considering bringing to the park. But then I saw a segment featuring a professional acquaintance of mine who owned Sacramento’s Funderland park. The truckers accused him of a bait-and-switch; he argued that the trucks they brought were too light. Words were exchanged, and the owner came off looking like a horse’s ass. Nope.

We also said no to a pilot program based on the drama and conflict inherent in family-run amusement parks. And even though we’re not family run, they still wanted to film in our photogenic park. Sorry.

Another opportunity was brought to us by producers of a program to be aired on Oprah’s network featuring a single mom’s life. The production would have taken days and seriously impacted park operations. Would they reimburse our nonprofit for additional staff time and effort? They would not. They said the exposure would be worth far more than mere cash. Pass.

But in 2008 I felt I couldn’t say no to a friend from middle school in Los Angeles who was then a producer on an ABC reality show called “Secret Millionaire.” Each episode of the show – which is still on the air – features a millionaire who leaves his or her luxurious life behind, takes on a secret identity and lives undercover in a poor area for six days with a very limited budget. The millionaire then works and volunteers alongside locals in need. On the final day, the millionaire is uncovered and surprises the locals, whose worthy causes are then awarded at least $100,000.

The show offered us a modest fee to cover our expenses, but we were more swayed by the philanthropic nature of the show and by the fact that our local kids would benefit from the millionaire’s largesse.

The millionaire for the Bay Area segment was Gurbaksh Chahal, an ad tech executive who had recently sold a company to Yahoo! for $300 million and who lived in a 37th-floor penthouse in San Francisco. He would live for a week in the Tenderloin, after which he would reveal his true self at Fairyland, where deserving kids and their family members would enjoy all of the park’s attractions for the day.
Gurbaksh Chahal on the balcony of his San Francisco penthouse apartment. Photo: San Francisco Chronicle.

Last week, Gurbaksh Chahal was sentenced to one year in jail after his conviction for domestic violence against two former girlfriends and for parole violation.

Chahal had been a media darling for years, a relentless self-promoter who understood the value of putting his attractive face before the widest possible audience. Not only did he appear on the Oprah Winfrey show to discuss his childhood and business activities, but he also applied to (and was rejected for) a role on “The Apprentice.” After the Fairyland segment, he went on to be the CEO of Gravity4 and RadiumOne.

It seems ironic that reality TV proved his undoing. A surveillance video in the master bedroom of his $6.9 million Rincon Hill penthouse showed him striking his then-girlfriend 117 times in half an hour.

I clearly recall the day that Chahal came to Fairyland. He obviously didn’t like kids, and he didn’t engage with them at all until the cameras were on.

Chahal’s attorneys, in arguing that he should not be sent to jail, cited his contributions to charitable causes. I’m sure that the donation he gave as part of the reality show was considered. Would he have given this money if it weren’t attached to the millions of viewers who’d see the show? I have my opinion.

So, going forward, I doubt that Fairyland will agree to be a part of any other reality shows. We prefer to remain a haven for fantasy and imagination, content to leave capital-R reality outside our fairy gates.

- C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park. 

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