There is, of course, content that producers will not air, though "that varies from production company to company," a reality-television producer who asked not to be named said in an email. "Personally, I believe a producer, and then in turn the network, will air anything that does not put them at serious risk of lawsuit.”
Producers set few boundaries when it comes to airing non-litigious content with potentially damaging consequences for its stars. MTV found itself facing backlash after the series premiere of Jersey Shore when trailers for upcoming episodes showed Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi getting punched in the face at a bar by a stranger. The network pulled the footage after receiving complaints from viewers about depicting violence against women. Producers give viewers what they want to see, but at a certain point the audience begins to empathize with the cast members and turns on producers.
Showing Snooki being sucker-punched is extreme, and viewers objected. But if viewers don’t care, then the networks essentially have free rein to show what they want. Take the case of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills: Former cast member Taylor Armstrong discussed on-camera her husband Russell’s physical abuse toward her and her five-year-old daughter throughout seasons one and two. Then three weeks before the second season premiered and just one month after Taylor filed for divorce, Russell committed suicide. While season two was packed with stories of Taylor’s abuse, Bravo suddenly found itself being blamed for Russell’s death, as critics said that the network unfairly portrayed him and drove him to suicide. The producers did edit out some scenes, like Taylor buying lingerie to spice up her marriage, but still showed a dinner party she attended with a black eye. One housewife asked her “Is this what it took for you to leave?,” to which Taylor responded “Unfortunately.” For Bravo, pushing the envelope proved beneficial—the second season of the show has so far had the highest ratings of the show’s four-season run.
A year later during season three of the Beverly Hills series, another housewife, Brandi Glanville, announced castmate Adrienne Maloof’s family secret at a dinner party. Bravo muted out the revelation, but after the episode aired, the tabloids began to investigate the secret, and ultimately the Maloofs admitted that Adrienne had used a surrogate to have her twin boys. After the incident, Maloof told Us Weekly that from the beginning of the show, her children would not be a part of the storyline. With a secret like that, Bravo couldn’t resist, even if it meant almost going against Adrienne’s contract, and found a way to weave it into the season. In an interview with Life and Style after the season, Adrienne said the revelation “destroyed her family” and put a strain on her marriage that ended in divorce.