NEW YORK — When 6-year-old Falcon Heene threw up twice while being interviewed about his role in last week's balloon ordeal, he summed things up for millions of onlookers.
Viewers had been riveted Thursday by the sight of a flyaway helium balloon feared to be carrying the child. The media wrung the story for all its suspense and tragic possibilities.
Then it turned out to be a happy mistake. Falcon was pronounced safe at home the whole time.
Then it turned out to be what authorities have called a hoax. On Sunday, days after Falcon turned to his dad during a CNN interview and declared "you said we did this for a show," authorities said Richard and Mayumi Heene had cooked up the stunt to land themselves a TV reality series.
But somehow inevitable. It's endemic of the more and more seductive urge to dismiss truth, responsibility and other traditional values in favor of hustling for fame on the genre that continues to be labeled, with less and less cause, "reality TV."
Until last week, the most recent breakout star in "reality TV" may have been former Illinois First Lady Patti Blagojevich, who competed last June in the Costa Rican jungle as a surrogate for her husband on NBC's reality TV series "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!"
Though she didn't prevail as Queen of the Jungle, her appearance was successful by other measures: She made some money, had a TV platform for defending her disgraced husband, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (who has pleaded not guilty to wide-ranging federal charges), and emerged with more dignity than many of her fellow contestants.
Meanwhile, we mustn't forget (and how could we?) the summer's depraved personalities who had their brush with reality shows. Like Brian Lee Randone, the self-proclaimed preacher who was once on a show called "America's Sexiest Bachelor," who in September was arraigned for allegedly torturing and murdering an ex-porn actress.
And just a few weeks earlier, Ryan Jenkins, known as a sweet-talking, suave contestant on VH1's "Megan Wants a Millionaire," was found dead by suicide days after his ex-model wife was discovered killed and mutilated.
Last Thursday the "reality TV" of the so-called balloon boy could have had its own dread conclusion, and the sky-high drama was instantly validated by TV's most credible voices: news reporters and anchors.
The vision of a shiny, mushroom-shaped balloon swept aloft kept viewers spellbound, breathless and (let's face it) titillated. On-air commentators and experts kept busy speculating on how fast and far it might fly, when it might come down, and how much damage might result when it did. Meanwhile, voices were raised that maybe the child wasn't on board after all, raising questions of whether the boy had fallen from the balloon — introducing another potentially tragic set of circumstances.
If the sheriff who wants to charge him is correct about the scheme, Richard Heene must have felt like P.T. Barnum for a few hours, seizing the world's attention and his position to make the most of it.
Then viewers' memories were stirred: Wasn't this a guy who, with his wife and three sons, had appeared on the ABC reality show "Wife Swap"? Turned out he's a veteran of reality TV!
But then reports began to surface that Heene had approached production companies about launching his own reality series. TLC network said Heene had pitched the network on a show some months ago, but that it passed. Earlier this year, RDF USA, which produces "Wife Swap," had had a show in development with the Heenes but in a statement Friday said "we are no longer in active development with the family."
Now facing criminal charges, with his credibility maybe damaged forever, Heene could find to his dismay that his TV career lies in tatters.
But when did deceit or misbehavior give pause to reality TV?
Nearly a decade ago, the Fox special "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" rode bad taste and bad faith to huge ratings. Only later did former Air Force nurse Darva Conger admit she took part in the "Multimillionaire" matchup as a lark, then fibbed her way through her marriage vows, declaring she "was playing a role."
And Rick Rockwell, the would-be actor-comic whose very status as a multimillionaire was being questioned only days after the broadcast, turned out to have had a restraining order issued against him years earlier after an ex-girlfriend accused him of striking her.
Their marriage was almost instantly annulled. But reality TV was in it for the long haul.
Now, whatever legal woes Richard Heene may face, he's known around the world. In the hands of the right producer, he's promotable and marketable. Never mind that the boy in the balloon wasn't really in the balloon. This alleged scam may have given Heene a boost beyond his wildest dreams.