A Death in the MTV Family

Back when reality TV stormed the beaches of prime time, when we first saw people eating worms or marrying strangers or jumping out of helicopters, the conventional wisdom was that the insanity wouldn't stop until the ultimate happened—until someone died. Last week someone did, though not in the way anyone would have predicted. Her name was Victoria Anne Simmons, and she lived only a few hours. Victoria's birth was supposed to launch the third season of MTV's "Run's House," a kind of hip-hop "Father Knows Best" featuring Joseph Simmons (a.k.a. Rev Run of the rap group Run-D.M.C.), his wife, Justine, and their five children, ages 9 to 23. Cameras followed Justine's pregnancy throughout the second season, right up to her emergency C-section. But in the operating room, real life intruded on reality TV. The camera, mercifully, doesn't show Victoria's death, but we're up close and personal as the family gets the news.

Victoria's death may have been an unscripted plot twist, but it wasn't entirely unexpected. Rev Run and Justine knew from the middle of the pregnancy that the baby had an omphalocele, a defect that caused her organs to grow on the outside of her body. They told no one except their pastor—not MTV, not even their children. Why? "Our faith told us that God could give us a miracle and this baby could be born with no problems," Justine says. The Simmonses don't believe in abortion, and they feared that if they told anyone, people would judge them about continuing the pregnancy. But not tell their own kids? "We'd prepared our children for life's lessons, and we knew they could handle it," says Rev Run. "We've taught them that we are blessed even if things don't go as we want them to."

Yet it's hard not to be somewhat disturbed by the Simmonses' decision to keep the show on the air. The tragedy could have ended "Run's House"—or, handled carefully, boosted it. (More than 3.4 million people tuned in to the premiere, about 1 million more than last season's average.) "We didn't think we were exploiting the situation, because we had to have a conclusion to the baby's birth," says executive producer Mike Powers. "I think real viewers will want to know the truth." But the kids certainly could have been told in private—not while the show was being filmed. They hear about the baby just after she died, in their mother's hospital room. They look stunned and heartbroken. Still, Rev Run defends his decision to keep filming and even believes the show will provide a public service. "I may be famous, I may have bling, but tragedy comes to my door just as it does anybody else's," he says. "That's a message that cannot be pressed hard enough when celebrities are so much on a pedestal." The show, apparently, must go on, even when life doesn't.