By Jill Serjeant
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The "Real Housewives" had a suicide; "Deadliest Catch" lost one of its biggest stars; and child molestation wrecked the cozy family image of "19 Kids and Counting."
Reality TV show "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" is now also wrestling with serious drama after former basketball professional Lamar Odom collapsed at a Nevada brothel and was placed on life support in a Las Vegas hospital.
Cable channel E! says it is "not currently shooting in Las Vegas" for the show, which returns for its 11th season on Nov. 15. But the network declined to say how it planned to handle what TV watchers acknowledge is a real dilemma involving the estranged husband of Khloe Kardashian, and the dash to his bedside of most of the Kardashian clan.
"They are going to have to deal with it. It's not like they can ignore it. I imagine it will pick up in an aftermath kind of situation," said Mary McNamara, TV critic of the Los Angeles Times.
Odom's whirlwind courtship and marriage to Khloe was played out in detail on "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," which devotes much of its air time to portraying its stars' beauty treatments and wardrobe choices, and in the short-lived spin-off "Khloe and Lamar."
But the couple were on the brink of finalizing their divorce when the ex-Lakers star was hospitalized.
That poses ethical questions over whether Odom would want to be included in the shownat this critical stage, and he is in no condition currently to say so.
"On the one hand, producers should be committed to respecting privacy, and they should be mindful of consent. On the other hand, they should be committed to truthfulness," said Wendy Wyattt, professor of media ethics at the University of St Thomas in Minnesota.
Yet, as Andy Dehnart, editor of realityblurred.com, noted, "The Kardashians are dealing with this and their reactions are their own."
ANYTHING GOES IN REALITY SHOWS
After 15 years as a major force in U.S. pop culture, it is not the first time that reality TV has dealt with tragedy and scandal.
"We are long past the point of saying there are certain things that should not be included in reality shows. There are no rules," said McNamara.
In 2011, the husband of one of the "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" committed suicide. The Bravo show went ahead a month later, tweaked to include a discussion of the suicide and how none of the other housewives had seen it coming. It got scathing reviews.
Long-running "19 Kids and Counting," about the Christian Duggar family, was canceled in July, two months after the eldest son of the 19 children acknowledged he had molested four of his younger sisters about 12 years ago.
Cable channel TLC in August broadcast a one-hour documentary about child sexual abuse that included two of the sisters, now in their 20s.
Dehnart said one of the best examples was set by Discovery Channel's "The Deadliest Catch" after the 2010 death from a stroke of its popular crab fishing captain, Phil Harris. An episode featuring Harris' death aired five months later followed by a special tribute episode
"They did an outstanding job and turned one of their most important characters' deaths into television art by presenting it in a way that was cinematic and emotional and really done with care," said Dehnart.
Wyatt, co-author of "The Ethics of Reality TV: A Philosophical Examination," said the Kardashians share the obligation of handling the Odom crisis with the producers of their show.
"As a family whose story has unfolded in public for so many years, they may not, in my mind, appreciate as fully as they could the value of restraint," she said.
After the mass coverage of Odom and his bleak prognosis this week, the battle for TV ratings may also come into play. Audiences for "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" have fallen in the past two years. Sunday's season 10 finale was watched by 1.7 million Americans compared to an average of 3.3 million for season nine.
"If (Odom's situation) becomes a central story line, it might help ratings temporarily, but we have also seen that these kind of things don't necessarily draw viewers back in hordes," said Dehnart.
"If anything, it reminds viewers that this isn't just a fantasy world and that can sometimes turn off people who don't really want to think about what they are watching but who just want to tune out and enjoy."
E! television is a unit of Comcast Corp
(Reporting By Jill Serjeant; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)