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There once was a boy who was trapped in a weather balloon floating over Colorado.

Oh, hold on, let me start again. There once was a boy who everyone thought was trapped in a weather balloon floating over Colorado, who was actually hiding in a box in his attic.

Wait, wait, sorry. I have to rephrase. There once was a father who tricked law enforcement officials and major media outlets into believing that his son was at first trapped in a weather balloon, but was then found in a box in the family’s attic — all in hopes of landing his own television show.

All this would be hilarious, if it wasn’t so utterly stupid and wasteful.

This past week, Americans have been transfixed by the “balloon boy” saga: We were horrified imagining six-year-old Falcon Heene trapped in a silver weather balloon; elated when his parents “realized” Falcon was hiding in the attic to avoid getting in trouble for accidentally releasing said weather balloon; and then disgusted when the whole debacle turned out to be a hoax. A ruse in pursuit of celebrity, no less, and one that wasted public resources and diverted police and medical personnel from worrying about actual, real-life disasters.

“I felt completely duped because I believed the entire thing and felt emotionally attached,” said College junior Jennifer Feldstein.

That family patriarch Richard Heene — who, along with the rest of the family was also featured on ABC’s Wife Swap — would stage such a public display of self-centeredness simply so his family could have the “honor” of being the next dubiously deserving reality family, is a tribute to the lows to which television watchers have sunk. This has got to stop.

What was once primarily game shows and contests has now devolved into the last stop for former celebrities on the brink and wannabees looking for their 15 minutes. It’s changed celebrity culture and transformed television into a car wreck from which you can’t look away. It’s fun, sure, but its also disgusting at times, and hardly “real.”

Take Jon & Kate Plus 8. Once a cute hour on TLC about parents raising multiples, it’s now an uncomfortable and very public documentary on the break-up of a family. And dating shows like The Bachelor claim to promote true love, but extol the virtues of playing the field — what, you thought one guy dating 15 girls at the same time equalled monogamy?

Don’t expect anything to change, either.

“It would be nice if our television channels had morals, but their job is to put on TV shows that people want to watch,” said Howard Gensler, who writes the Tattle column for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Reality television shows are easy to produce — no expensive actors to pay or finicky writers with a “vision” — and with the right editing and marketing, they can make a celebrity out of even the stupidest people. It also offers those fading from the public eye a boost, both visually and monetarily (see: VH1).

“TV dangles the money, and people who don’t have much going on and who don’t have a lot of self-respect to begin with jump,” explained Gensler.

Now anyone can be a celebrity, apparently, so long as they have “a shtick” — be it the ability to mass-produce children or make multiple women think they are in love with you at the same time.

But let’s go back to Balloon Boy. What was saddest about this whole affair wasn’t the waste of resources or the Heenes’ deception. While the Gosselins’ situation seems like it simply got out of hand, the Heenes used their children blatantly in their manipulations. Look at interviews the family conducted — the children look exhausted, and Falcon vomited on camera twice!

If reality television breeds this sort of behavior, I want nothing of it. Let’s go back to fake stories and scripted series — at least any horrible situations in those are not supposedly “real.”

Arielle Kane is a College senior from Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. Her e-mail address is Brought to You by the Letter A normally runs on Thursdays.

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