Reality show gets an ugly makeover

Uplifting story of 2 families lapses into bitter legal fight

May 13, 2007|By Kim Christensen and Meg James | Kim Christensen and Meg James,Los Angeles Times

It was the perfect cast for an uplifting reality TV show: five orphaned siblings and the loving family friends who took them in.

The story line certainly appealed to the producers of ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. After learning that Phil and Loki Leomiti had opened their doors to the Higgins clan - their former neighbors and fellow church members - the show's executives proposed transforming the couple's modest Santa Fe Springs house into a nine-bedroom showcase.

"The Leomitis are an amazing family," a production document reads. "The home that they offered the Higgins' is not a temporary one. It is theirs forever, with or without enough space."

But "forever" proved to be a matter of weeks after Extreme Makeover rebuilt the Leomitis' house, chronicling the project in a carefully choreographed heart-warmer that aired Easter Sunday 2005.

Shortly after moving in with the Leomitis and their three children, the Higginses were gone. What had begun as a nationally televised goodwill gesture quickly dissolved into a rancorous legal battle marked by allegations of fraud, greed, racism and broken promises.

Though the accusations are disputed, the rift has opened a revealing window on the lucrative world of reality programming - and one of its most popular shows.

In the past two years, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has reaped more than $500 million in advertising revenue, according to research firm Nielsen Monitor-Plus. Consistently a Top 25 prime-time performer, it drew 16.4 million viewers for the Leomiti-Higgins episode.

Without question, the Emmy-winning show has improved the lives of many people selected for its trademark renovations, conducted at warp speed by swarms of workers and volunteers while the families are sent on vacation. Those helped by the show include Hurricane Katrina victims, a wounded Iraq war veteran and a Los Angeles police officer paralyzed by a robber's bullet.

Despite the warm-and-fuzzy nature of such programs, altruism has little to do with their reason for being, said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"Networks are not in business to be philanthropists," he said. "The price of a house is small potatoes compared to how successful a show like this becomes. For the most part, philanthropy has nothing to do with it."

That assertion is at the heart of a Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit filed by the Higgins siblings against the Leomitis, ABC and its parent Walt Disney Co., Extreme Makeover producers and the company that renovated the house.

In their lawsuit, Higgins siblings Charles II, Michael, Charis, Joshua and Jeremiah - who were 14 to 21 when their parents died and are now in their mid-teens to early 20s - allege that the producers cynically replayed the episode July 24, 2005, fully aware that its fairy-tale ending had soured.

The defense countered that repeating the episode "was neither false nor misleading," and that ABC and the producers were not obliged to report that circumstances had changed.

Trial of the case, set to begin tomorrow, was postponed at the request of the Higginses' attorney because of an injury.

The difficulty for his clients began in April 2004, when their mother, Charis, succumbed to breast cancer. Their father, Charles, died of heart failure two months later.

With no relatives to help them, the siblings were left all but destitute by their parents' deaths. The family had to raise $6,000 for Charis' funeral, according to a production document filed in the court case, the same one that described the Leomitis as "amazing." There was no money left to bury Charles, whose cremation was paid for by the family's pastor, Rex Herndon.

The children were living in a rented apartment in Downey, Calif., when the Leomitis, who had three teenagers, took the other children in. News reports sparked an outpouring of support, including thousands of dollars in donations collected by the Norwalk Assembly of God, the families' church.

Herndon received a flood of calls, including some from Extreme Makeover producers, whom he put in touch with the families.

Exactly who promised what remains in dispute, but both families lobbied for the makeover.

"These kids had nowhere to go and we knew as a family we couldn't let the streets swallow them up," the Leomitis said in their handwritten application to the producers. "They had nothing, no money to bury their parents, no money to live. To make a long story short, our goal as a family is to give these kids a chance in life."

In a transcript of a taping for the show, Charles Higgins calls the Leomitis his second parents.

Extreme Makeover producers signed the couple and the orphans to agreements securing the rights to their stories. They also contracted with the Leomitis to rebuild their home.

ABC declined to comment on the lawsuit but said it stood behind the show.

The Leomitis declined to comment, citing the pending trial. "We're just going to wait - and let the truth prevail," Loki Leomiti said.

Kim Christensen and Meg James write for the Los Angeles Times.

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