Television reality shows are rapidly becoming the dominant genre in cable as well as in network programming. They are comparatively cheap to produce because they don’t require union scale actors and writers, or expensive sets and remote locations like sitcoms or dramatic series. One of the inherent risks of TV reality programming, however, is the real-life mix of volatile personalities placed in close quarters, often in artificial situations created by show producers. As reality shows become more popular, the artificial situations often need to trump themselves in shock value. The most controversial of these practices is “ambush television” where unsuspecting participants are placed in potentially dangerous bait-and-switch scenarios that occasionally turn to tragedy.
Running from 1991 to 2003, “The Jenny Jones Show” was a prime example of a reality show gone wrong. It was a talk show that sometimes used ambush tactics on unsuspecting guests.
“The Jenny Jones Show” participants
On March 6, 1995, 24-year-old Jonathan Schmitz, a waiter at a tony suburban Detroit restaurant, was an unsuspecting guest on “The Jenny Jones Show.” The show episode’s topic was “Secret Crushes on People of the Same Sex”; however, Schmitz, a self-proclaimed heterosexual, was unaware of the topic title. He was only aware that the show topic would reveal someone who was his secret admirer.
32-year-old Donna Riley was the upstairs neighbor in the apartment building where Schmitz lived. 26-year-old Scott Amedure, an openly gay man, was a friend of Donna Riley and a passing acquaintance of Jonathan Schmitz through Riley.
On the “Jenny Jones Show” episode, Schmitz, Amedure and Donna Riley were the show segment guests. When Schmitz saw Donna Riley in the television studio before the taping, he assumed that she was his secret admirer.
When the segment began, Donna Riley and Scott Amedure came onstage. Still, Jonathan Schmitz fully expected Donna Riley to be his secret crush. When show host Jenny Jones revealed loudly that Scott Amedure was Jonathan Schmitz’s admirer, the studio audience burst into gales of laughter and applause. During the taping of the segment, Amedure revealed a sexual fantasy about Schmitz. It included bondage and whipped cream.
On the surface, Schmitz played the good sport, yet made it clear to both the in-studio and viewer audience that his sexual preference was heterosexual. Again, there were no outward signs that the videotaped ambush had made a negative impact on Jonathan Schmitz.
“The Jenny Jones Show” aftermath
Schmitz, Riley and Amedure flew together back to Michigan. Schmitz drove them to the apartment building where he and Donna Riley lived. They partied at Riley’s apartment and then, according to Schmitz, he went to his apartment alone.
The next morning, Jonathan Schmitz found an unsigned sexually suggestive note on his front door. He assumed that it was from Scott Amedure and began to feel what some in the psychiatric field might call “homosexual panic.”
The next day Schmitz bought a shotgun and ammunition. He went to Scott Amedure’s trailer and shot him twice in the chest. Amedure died.
“The Jenny Jones Show” murder trial
At the 1996 murder trial, Jonathan Schmitz was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 25-to-50 years in prison.
In 1999 Scott Amedure’s family launched a lawsuit against the “Jenny Jones Show” producers, Jenny Jones herself and Time Warner. Geoffrey Fieger, best known as the attorney for “suicide doctor” Jack Kevorkian, represented the family in court. Although the Amedure family was awarded $25 million, a higher court threw out the award on appeal. In 2004, the family took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. They rejected the family’s appeal.
In defense of “The Jenny Jones Show”, the production company had shown the court their production notes indicating that Jonathan Schmitz had been told that his secret crush could be “male or female.”