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Wipeout contestant dies, prompting The Wrap to sensationalize and exploit his death

A 33-year-old contestant on the third season of ABC’s Wipeout died last Thursday as a result of a stroke.

Entertainment Tonight reports that Tom Sparks “was complaining of knee pain on the first part of the show’s obstacle course, and the producers told him to stop. As the medics checked him out they noticed he was experiencing shortness of breath, and he went to a local hospital for further examination.” He died last Thursday, and the L.A. County Coroner is “deferring the cause of death pending additional tests, and the coroner’s report could take up to four-to-ten weeks to be released.”

However, The Idaho Mountain Express reports that Sparks’ father Bill “said in a statement that doctors have determined that Tom’s stroke was probably caused by a condition called antiphospholipid antibody syndrome (APS), a disease that causes unnatural clotting of the blood. “

ABC and Endemol, the show’s production company, said in a statement, “We offer our heartfelt condolences to the family. This is a tragic loss and our thoughts are with them at this time.”

It’s also an opportunity to exploit his death by writing sensational headlines. The web site The Wrap headlines its allegedly exclusive report “Another Reality-Show Death”, as if this is happening non-stop.

Their pathetic story calls this “the latest deadly reality show incident,” linking that phrase to their bullshit attempt to blame reality TV for several suicides. The irony is that the story contains accurate information, correctly linking Sparks’ death to his pre-existing condition and noting that producers and medics pulled him off the course when he said he was in pain, and then took him to the hospital. It also says, “Certainly, Sparks gave no prior indication of ill health,” and while it’s not clear if that’s speculation on the writer’s part or actual information, either way, it’s obvious that Sparks knew of his condition, since his father did, too.

But because just reporting facts isn’t enough to get a fledgling web site attention and traffic, the writer, Daniel Frankel, tries to make more of the story despite a lack of, you know, evidence. He writes, “The death highlights an emerging challenge for the increasingly dominant nonfiction TV business, which relies heavily on everyday individuals, often placed in difficult situations. Despite what the industry describes as rigorous vetting procedures, deeper physical and psychological issues are often hard to detect.”

But it’s not hard to detect sentences that make sweeping generalizations in order to attempt to make a point. Newspapers used to be ridiculed and insulted by being referred to as “fish wrap,” because they were used to actually wrap fish carcasses, so it’s good that The Wrap is helping to keep that insult intact by establishing a reputation that fits its name.

‘Wipeout’ Contestant Dies: Pre-Existing Condition Possible Cause [Entertainment Tonight]
Friends to remember Tom Sparks [Idaho Mountain Express]
Exclusive: ‘Wipeout’ — Another Reality-Show Death [The Wrap]

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.


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