A&E has strayed pretty far from the Arts & Entertainment focus that it began with. Nowadays, it’s all reality TV and big ratings. Most reality TV shows, from Hoarders to Live PD, purport to have some kind of positive goal. It’s about drawing attention to a good cause, so they say. But from producers who’ve talked about how they manipulate the show’s subjects in interviews, to lawsuits, scandals, and more, there are a lot of skeletons hidden in the closet.
Sometimes, the premise of a show itself is a little suspect. Are mentally ill people or victims of crime really helped by exposure on national television? And once TV camera crews have seemingly unlimited access to police – even more than other journalists under normal conditions – does their presence actually change the way policing goes down?
Shows like Hoarders, Interventions, The First 48, and Live PD, undoubtedly make money for the network, and that’s why they’re on TV. But as viewers, we all need to remember that what you see on TV is seldom reality – and our list of dirty secrets is the proof.
16 Billy The Exterminator Rap Sheet
Billy The Exterminator would seem to be one of the less controversial reality TV shows on A&E – take a colorful character, add some disgusting rats and other household vermin, and watch what happens. It hasn’t got the glamour of some of the network’s offerings but garnered solid ratings from its debut in 2009. In 2012, however, Billy, aka William Bretherton, and his wife, Mary, were arrested for drug possession. The show went off the air in late 2012, with Billy citing personal issues. In April of 2013, however, he got the good news that the judge was going to be lenient on the couple. As long as he performed four 8-hour days of community service, took a substance abuse test, and stayed away from drugs and booze as verified by random drug testing, he'd stay out of jail. After a hiatus, he resurfaced on a Canadian version of the show in 2016 called Billy Goes North, but then, the show was picked up by A&E for another run as of April 2017. We're just guessing that producers want us to forget the drug bust in between.
15 Beyond Scared Straight – Sensationalist Entertainment, Not Treatment
Beyond Scared Straight follows up on the principle established by the original Scared Straight, a documentary that was released back in 1978. You bring kids in trouble to a real prison to experience the mayhem, and they get scared back onto the straight and narrow. The original documentary won both an Oscar and an Emmy, and executive producer Arnold Shapiro insists on its value in preventing juvenile delinquency. The problem is that the data doesn't back him up. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation actually suspended its Scared Straight program because of one of the episodes that were filmed there. Even after counseling was added to the scaring-by-inmate process, experts remained unconvinced of the program's worth, and government funding was withdrawn in some cases. The show, which aired on A&E from 2011 to 2015, is still available to view online.
14 The Case of Cameron Coker
The First 48 is a show that follows police officers investigating a murder and revolves around the premise that those first 48 hours of an investigation are the most crucial and that the chances of solving a case diminish drastically after that period. But does being on the show actually make police officers push for an early resolution? That was one of the charges leveled at the show and officers involved in the case of Cameron Coker, whose life was ruined after appearing as a suspect on an episode that aired in July 2009. Then 18 years old, Coker already had a rap sheet that included drug dealing. He found himself a suspect in the shooting murder of a 16-year-old kid after being fingered by another kid; a photographic ID scene that was also part of the show. Funny thing is, the investigator himself admits he isn’t sure where the picture of Coker that the kid and two others identified came from. The three so-called witnesses later recanted their story. And it turns out that Coker, who spent three years in jail, didn’t do it. It’s not the first or only time the show has supposedly documented a crook getting what he deserved – except "the crook" didn’t. One newspaper report in Miami claimed that 15 inmates who were charged on the show were later released after those charges proved false. Coker was exonerated, but his episode still airs despite his lawyer’s requests to the network to stop.
13 Taiwan Smart
In November 2009, Taiwan Smart was minding his own business in his apartment in Miami’s Little Haiti when bullets began to fly. He took off through the back door and ran down the street to a neighbor’s place. His two roommates didn’t make it and were killed in the gunfire. When the Miami Police Department came to investigate, they brought The First 48 camera crews with them to capture the action. Investigators immediately hit on Smart as the main suspect, and his interrogation made for great TV. He was arrested shortly after. Smart was in jail for 19 months before his public defender lawyer could get the charges dropped based on lack of any evidence linking him to the crime. This one has a happy ending – at least for Smart, who sued the city and won an $860,000 award. Part of his suit alleged that filming his interrogation and arrest without permission was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights – the one against unreasonable search and seizure. Apparently, the jury agreed. These days, Smart actually works for his former lawyer as a legal assistant.
12 Storage Wars Scandals
Storage Wars has been one of A&E’s solid hits since its debut in 2010. It’s got the excitement of the auctions and the unknown revealed – what's in the storage locker, and is it worth anything? Part of the appeal certainly lies in the characters of the treasure hunters who show up to place the bids. Dave Hester has been on the show for years and now represents the biggest operation on the series, but producers would probably like us to forget that back in 2012/13, Dave launched a lawsuit against the network, claiming that the show was faked. Hester had always been cast as something of a villain on Storage Wars, and in 2012, he was fired. He retaliated with the lawsuit for wrongful termination and claimed the show was “committing a fraud on its viewing audience.” He alleged that the show's producers planted items in the lockers to ensure an exciting outcome. The planted items were supplied by an antiques dealer who was often featured on the show. Hester also said he was directed toward bidding on specific lockers. The lawsuit had a rocky path, and Dave was ordered to pay legal fees for A&E and another production company to the tune of over $120,000. But in the end, both sides made up, and Dave was back on the show in 2014, to the chagrin of many fans. Shortly after returning, he got into a dust-up onscreen with his castmates. A classy guy.
11 Live PD Isn’t Actually Live
Live PD has been a controversial show since its inception in October 2016. It covers the hugely popular police reality-TV niche that has long been occupied by shows like Cops but with a difference – it would show an unedited version of what police see. Cops takes hours of footage and then edits out the dull parts to show only the more exciting chases and takedowns. Live PD’s shtick is supposed to be a stream-of-consciousness view of police work. Except... it isn’t. There’s a 28-minute delay built into the system, ostensibly so that producers can edit anything too graphic or images that might put innocent bystanders or victims in danger. The idea that a reality TV show should be allowed more access to police doings than even regular accredited journalists is questionable at best. In addition, while on the show, officers are allowed to answer calls outside their usual area in order to create the opportunity for more exciting footage. The show’s PR is about letting the public in on what the police actually do on a day-to-day basis with no secrets, but it seems like just another edited version of the work designed to entertain rather than to educate.
10 The Death Of Aiyana Stanley-Jones
Aiyana Stanley-Jones was just seven years old and asleep on the couch beside her grandmother on the east side of Detroit in May 2010 when a SWAT team – with The First 48 cameras in tow – came crashing in, first by throwing a flash-bang grenade through the window and kicking in the door – which was unlocked. A SWAT officer entered the home firing his gun, and a bullet got Aiyana in the neck. To add to the tragedy, the cops tried to allege that the grandmother had gone after the officer’s gun – when in fact, they’d burst into the wrong apartment. The guy they wanted for murder was in the apartment upstairs. Critics, including those among the Detroit PD, pointed out that the flash grenade was rarely used, and not protocol – something added for the cameras maybe? One Detroit police officer and The First 48 photographer were charged in the incident. After two mistrials and two charges dropped, the officer went free as of January 2015. The A&E videographer and photographer wasn't quite so lucky. Charged with obstruction of justice and perjury for allegedly “copying, showing, or giving video footage that she shot of the raid to third parties,” prosecutors also alleged she had lied to police in an attempt to make the child's family look guilty. She eventually pleaded no contest to the obstruction charge and got 2 years probation, along with a fine.
9 Generation KKK
A&E generated headlines when the network announced plans to produce a documentary series about the KKK in 2016, and we’re betting that the producers wish everyone would just forget the whole thing ever happened. There was an immediate outcry from many people and organizations who were concerned about any show that would normalize the inherently racist group. A new twist to the show was quickly proposed. Called Escaping the KKK: A Documentary Series Exposing Hate in America, it sounded promising. It would focus on four prominent KKK families, each with a member who wanted out of the organization. But after having second thoughts, the network had third thoughts, and the whole concept was scrapped for what they called "ethical reasons." The subjects of the so-called documentary series went on the record in later interviews that that whole show had been faked from the start. They alleged that they were coached to say and do inflammatory things like burn crosses and use the notorious N-word and that scenes were shot and re-shot until they looked good on camera. So much for reality.
8 8 Minutes Misrepresentation
8 Minutes must've seemed like a gold mine to reality-TV producers – at least on paper. It involved sex workers for the titillation angle, with the twist that they were being rescued from a life of sin by a pastor, playing into the family-values crowd at the same time. The premise itself seems pretty dumb. The ladies thought they were going to meet a client and met with an ex-cop turned pastor instead who then tried to convince them to leave the lifestyle in 8 minutes. According to four women featured on the show, they were left worse off than when they began. They were promised resources to get out of the biz in exchange for their appearance on the show. What they actually got was a few hundred bucks and the number for a crisis hotline – and notoriety that meant they couldn’t go back to their old jobs, which wasn't exactly a path out of the sex trade. The series lasted only 5 episodes that aired in April 2016.
7 Intervention Manipulation
Intervention has been one of A&E’s most successful shows since it debuted in 2005. But in some ways, its success has forced producers to stray from the very methods that it was supposed to be built on. The classic method of intervention involves complete surprise – the addict’s family and friends pretty much ambush them, and the shock of it is part of the process. But as the show began to become better and better known, the element of surprise dwindled. The targeted addicts recognize the show’s hosts and know what’s up from the beginning. The TV crews had to come up with ways of trying to sneak their way into a situation without giving up the ruse. As the public, in general, has gotten more familiar with the concept of intervention, they’ve also lost confidence in it, even if the show’s ratings are still high. The show’s producers report that sometimes, even the addict’s family members are against the intervention because they don’t believe it works. Sounds like a premise that's run its course, existing for the ratings only.
6 Canceled Contracts
Shows like Live PD and The First 48 seem to show police in a positive light. Even with its controversies, the cops on Live PD come across as the good guys – and the members of the public they pursue and question, the bad guys. But that itself has gotten some municipalities concerned in a way that producers of those shows would probably rather we all didn’t talk about. The New Orleans and Miami police departments, among others, have canceled their contract with First 48, and departments in Tulsa, Greenville and other municipalities have canceled contracts with Live PD. In all cases, the powers that be said they didn’t like the way the show represented either the police or the communities they served. In Tulsa, for example, the show concentrated on the problematic north side of town, an area with a lot of poverty and social issues. Entertainment for the audience? The ratings would say so. Truth in policing? Not so much.
5 Live PD Exploits Victims
Is Live PD less about the police and more about making entertainment out of the victims? That’s one of the controversies dogging the show, which debuted in late 2016. On an episode that aired in July 2017, audiences watched as police officers went on a call about a fight at a house party in Columbia, South Carolina. As they got there, a 22-year-old man drove away, with police in pursuit. The cameras captured the subsequent struggle between the man and police. But he wasn’t alone. There was a 2-year-old girl in the car with him, and she ended up with a broken arm during the scuffle that was caught on camera. In January 2017, a woman in Richland County, South Carolina found out about her son’s shooting death as it played out on Live PD – watching along with millions of other viewers. That 28-minute delay is supposed to be just for this type of situation, and producers claimed they never meant to show the man’s body on the show. Among other controversial incidents, an officer who delivered a talk about domestic abuse on the show ended up charged with domestic assault herself just a few hours after appearing on the broadcast.
4 Takedown Mix-Up
We’re hoping somebody got fired – or at least demoted – for this silly mistake that could've cost a business money. American Takedown only aired for one season back in 2015. The show’s premise was a kind of hyped-up version of the classic cop reality show, focusing on tactical law enforcement units as they bring in what A&E were calling “America’s most dangerous criminals.” The show in question was supposedly about going after a lawyer and a chiropractor who had teamed up to commit insurance fraud. Their last names were Meltzer and Bell. So, some genius at A&E, we’re guessing, Googled the names and came up with a shot of a sign by the highway advertising a law firm by the name Meltzer and Bell. The only problem is, the two lawyers had absolutely nothing to do with the fraud investigation against a lawyer and a chiropractor. A&E made a public apology, and the law firm launched a lawsuit against them. The suit was dismissed by agreement about a month after it was launched in early 2016, and we’re sure that producers – and the unlucky legal team – would like everyone to forget it ever happened.
3 Real-Estate Scammer
Armando Montelongo became a reality TV star on A&E’s hit series Flip This House, where he appeared for three seasons. He was based out of San Antonio and went on to form a film production company that released a movie in 2011 and became a real-estate investor. He made big bucks holding real-estate seminars – one of those deals where you go to the free seminar largely to learn about the $1,500 three-day workshop, the $25,000 one-on-one real estate counseling service, and the $54,000 bus-tour seminar. In 2015, however, 164 of his students launched a federal lawsuit against him, alleging that he’d bilked them out of their life savings and given worthless advice, “destroyed livelihoods, wrecked marriages, driven students into clinical depression, and even resulted in suicide.” Maybe character wasn’t a requirement in A&E’s casting process?
2 Hoarders Mental Illness Exploitation
Hoarders, a reality-TV show that follows the lives and treatment of people with compulsive hoarding disorder, originated on A&E in 2009, then jumped to Lifetime, only to land back at A&E as of 2016, promising to be even more "extreme." There's the problem. The show is ostensibly about bringing attention to what's a bona fide psychiatric disorder, but the producers emphasize the squalid messes many of the show’s subjects live in rather than the treatment aspect. Mental health experts are divided on whether the show has any value in terms of promoting understanding. At times, the show seems to promise more than it can deliver. In 2012, a woman in Santa Cruz, CA was featured on the show, but when local media followed up two months later, the crews were still at work, and much of her junk was still in and around her home. In 2010, the show unwittingly featured a convicted sex offender who had made up not only a new name but also a story about a decorated military career that all proved to be false. Could it be that, in their zeal to put the most alarming-looking hoarding situations on camera, they’re ignoring things like fact-checking and are exploiting the mentally ill? Say it ain’t so.
1 Duck Dynasty Fraud And Fakery
Is it worth mentioning that Duck Dynasty is anything but a reality show? Is it something that needs spelling out? It’s fairly obvious that the famous Robertson clan is putting on a show for the cameras. They play a homespun Southern family nowadays, but Phil has a past that includes a bloody bar brawl that left his victims hospitalized and Phil taking a runner out of state to escape the consequences. Phil and Si's mother is notably absent from the show because of her background with a bipolar illness. Phil has talked publicly about how the A&E editors will add bleeps as if the family was swearing, even when they're not, and that the entire show and all the scenes are arranged by a production team in LA. Since late 2016, there's been a legal battle brewing between the founders of the show's production company, who were fired, and the company's new owners, with allegations of fraud and wrongdoing from both sides.
Sources: ibtimes.com; radaronline.com; vulture.com