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Admit it - we make Balloon Boy stories fly

Hello. I'm back. Yes, I missed you too, thanks.

Let us now consider the lesson of the Balloon Boy boondoggle and the actions of the Heene family who perpetuated it. "This was a hoax," Sheriff Jim Alderden of Larimer County in Colorado said on Sunday during a press conference. "It was a publicity stunt done with hopes of better manoeuvring themselves for a reality TV show."

Right. It's a TV thing. It's another thing too. At regular intervals something scuzzy and cringe-inducing emerges from the television-centric popular culture in the United States and screams out for attention. That attention usually involves high-volume tut-tutting. This is one of those things. It's also one of those incidents that reveal something deeper than what's on the surface.

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The tut-tutting is easily done but redundant. Cable news cannels went crazy for the runaway Balloon Boy story when they should have been covering events in Pakistan, Afghanistan and U.S. President Barack Obama's health-care plans. Yadda yadda. Of course U.S. cable TV news channels are going to indulge in the visually arresting balloon story and the terror-inducing tale of a small boy in terrible danger. Anybody would be gripped by it. It's human nature.

It is very easy to complain that U.S. cable news coverage goes overboard with this sort of story on a regular basis. The kid trapped down a well. The missing blond teenage girl. The kitty cat that plays the piano on YouTube. Big deal. The interest in these narratives is as old as storytelling itself. Cinderella stories. Little Red Riding Hood meets the wolf stories. Me, I'll watch a cute kitty story any old time. I'll get my news about events in Pakistan from the paper, later.

So let that be the first lesson on the Balloon Boy boondoggle - it's a waste of time to find fault with U.S. cable TV news channels. Any moral indignation is misplaced. Human-interest stories will trump politics and policy stories every time.

What's more cogent is the matter of using your children to attain fame and, possibly, a TV deal for a reality show. Here's another lessons from the Balloon Boy boondoggle: Your kids will make you famous. The U.S. popular culture and, in particular, TV shows, both fiction and reality, fetishize cute kids/kids in jeopardy/gaggles of kids. Can we blame those attention-seeking fame sluts the Heenes for exploiting the kid when it's so pervasive?

Apparently the Heene family had pitched TLC on a reality show about their "wacky" family already. Little wonder. It's TLC that airs Jon & Kate Plus 8 . It's TLC that airs 18 Kids and Counting and Toddlers & Tiaras . These are successful, popular shows. They showcase the kids a lot. That's what viewers - both in the United States and Canada - will watch avidly.

Look at any network sitcom and you'll find that a passel of cute kids is an essential ingredient. There's the mouthy kid who gets the laughs. There's the kid who is a wiseacre but actually wiser than the adults and speaks the truth. There's the geeky kid who gets the sympathy. Cosby's kids. Roseanne's kids. The kid who is the "half" on Two and a Half Men . These are hit shows, people. You watch them. You like the kids. In fact there's a rich irony in the way the Balloon Boy story came to be revealed as a boondoggle - it was the kid who opened his mouth and revealed the duplicity behind everything. Just like a TV show already.

On TV dramas, kids are props. They are used to proclaim a character's humanity and vulnerability. The most hard-bitten cop or FBI agent chokes up when a kid is in danger. Characters who don't have kids are routinely flagged as weird, unreliable, different. You - yes, you - watch these shows too and go along with the kid-propelled plot twists and signals about characters.

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What the Heenes did was despicable. A child was ruthlessly exploited and, obviously, a nervous wreck as dad Richard Heene tried to manipulate the media and achieve the fame he so pathetically desires. At the same time, what Heene did was to understand the narrative thrust that the U.S. media and the audiences adore. A kid in jeopardy. The visual oomph of the drifting balloon.

With an uncanny understanding of the pop culture's relentless focus on kids and their dramatic role in families both wacky and ordinary, both fictional and real, Heene made his play for fame, fortune and glory. He grasped the instinctive sympathy the story would arouse in the audience. And the audience is you and I. Before you take the moral high ground and before you lay blame, ask yourself what the Balloon Boy boondoggle says about you, the audience. Heene understands what you want, what you'll watch on TV. Let that be the main lesson of the Balloon Boy boondoggle.

Also airing:

Frontline: The Warning (PBS, 9 pm.) is a terrific report on the early warnings of a potential crisis in the U.S. financial system and how those warnings were ignored. The focus is on Brooksley Born, the head of an obscure regulatory agency, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), who not only warned of the potential for an economic meltdown in the 1990s, but also tried to take action that could have helped avert the crisis. She failed to convince the very powerful, especially Fed chairman Alan Greenspan and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, that regulation was needed. They saw her as both uppity and an alarmist. Even though Born was the top U.S. expert on the derivatives market. In fact she was interviewed by Bill Clinton for the post of attorney-general, but the word is that Clinton found her "boring." Most alarming, as Frontline points out, is that several of those who ignored Born's warnings are in key positions in the Obama administration.

Law & Order: SVU (CTV, 10 p.m.) has a lurid child exploitation story for the plot tonight. A mother (guest star Rosie Perez) is troubled by her son's behaviour at school, so she takes him to the doctor, only to find he has been the victim of sexual abuse. Detectives Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Stabler (Chris Meloni) finger the boy's stepfather (Jim True-Frost whom fans of The Wire will remember as Roland 'Prezbo' Pryzbylewski), and it turns out there are links to a pro child-adult relationship group. Kids in jeopardy. Same as it ever was.

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