Update: A source close to the production company Reveille confirms that the company was once involved in a Sunderland reality project. But, the source wrote in an e-mail, the company bailed out when “it was brought to our attention that it was dangerous and that Mr. Sunderland was potentially cutting corners.” The source continued, “But when it appeared Abby's journey was being pushed forward because of some potential marketing deals/sponsorship deals that Laurence Sunderland had lined up, and those deals would only be honored if she left by a certain date, Reveille started to feel like it wasn't for them.”
The story had all the makings of a gripping television show: an adventurous, photogenic 16-year-old makes an epic journey around the world and runs into trouble on the high seas. Would she make it or would she perish? And then the finale: She survived! Saved in the middle of the Indian Ocean by a glamorous-sounding French vessel that's delivering her safely back home!
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It sounds like nobody knew these potential teaser lines better than the girl's father, Laurence, a Thousand Oaks, California-based yacht manager who, along with his wife, Marianne, has raised and home-schooled Abby and her six siblings. Because on Monday, news broke that the Sunderlands had been working on a reality-television show documenting Abby's journey. A company called Magnetic Entertainment was behind it; and Reveille Entertainment, the company behind The Office and The Biggest Loser was also involved.
From the sound of things, the Sunderlands could have used the extra income a hit show might net, as they say they spent roughly $140,000 to support Abby's older brother Zac's ' round-the-world sail last year.
But the cost of covering Zac's journey doesn't even make a small dent in what the Australian government had to spend to save Abby: The Australian government has promised not to charge Sunderland's family with the cost of her rescue—it's good maritime karma to help stranded sailors. Still, the rescue was a complex, expensive, and potentially dangerous undertaking. Two aircraft were used—a Qantas Airbus and a Global Express Jet—as well as three maritime vessels, the Ile De La Reunion, the Osiris, and the Skandi Bergen. Factoring the per-hour costs of the planes, using data from Privatefly and the cost of sidetracking those ships, using the U.S. Coast Guard's outside government standard rates for comparable seacraft—none of it cheap considering that Sunderland was stranded roughly 2,299 miles off the western coast of Australia, roughly 24 hours from any other boats—The Daily Beast estimates that the charter and operations costs involved in the rescue tops $1.1 million.
Click Below to Watch Laurence Sunderland on Larry King Live
The critical press has focused on the family's reality-show plans, forcing Sunderland père to do some revisionist history. While news reports Monday morning quoted him saying about the show, "We thought it might be a good idea if it was encouraging to kids to get out there and do things," later in the day, family spokesman (and Abby's boat tech) Jeff Casher said that "such a show was discussed last year" when Zac sailed around the world but "never came about." This was followed, hours later, by a Los Angeles Times story that quoted Laurence stating, "There is no show at this time, nor will there be."
(It has since been revealed that Abby had five cameras on board with her.)
Magnetic Entertainment is a Studio City-based company that boasts grammatically challenged pitch writeups of one reality show and two documentaries focused on Abby on its website, but only dead links where executive bios should be. Laurence told the L.A. Times that had done some "initial filming but could not sell the show." He claimed that he ultimately had a falling out with the company because they were hoping that Abby would perish at sea. He also said that Magnetic had approached him, despite having earlier stated that he didn't initially get many bites on the show idea, which he had "shopped around." (Laurence Sunderland didn't respond to emails or phone messages requesting comment.)
On Monday, Sunderland's mother also denied the family was trying to capitalize on Abby's journey, arguing that the deal had been pegged to her brother's voyage and was dead before the 16-year-old girl set sail.
Magnetic Entertainment, which hasn't produced any projects or worked with any networks, also did not respond to interview queries Monday, and remained mute on the topic of the Sunderlands until a movie cameraman named Ted Caloroso ( Old Dogs, Legally Blonde 2)—identified on Abby's website as an associate of Magnetic—appeared on Headline News on Monday night claiming that the project had, in fact, had a deal with the well-regarded Reveille for Abby's show.
Laurence Sunderland then denied this assertion on Larry King Live, saying that Caloroso has a "personal vendetta" against him, while admitting that he'd still be game for a show so long as it was "inspirational for young people."
Caloroso, whose Facebook photo appears to be a picture he took with Abby, didn't return calls for comment.
It's clear that the Sunderlands weren't getting into business with the most reputable or established players. Says Alec Shankman, a former talent agent for reality stars who now runs reality-show casting website gotcast.com, "If you're interested in protecting your teenager, it would make far better sense to partner with a production company that has strong relationships with networks and studios." As for the concept of developing shows that involve underage talent, he says, "This kind of thing can hurt kids—in some cases, the kids actually later try to sue for damages." Gotcast.com, he noted, doesn't work with anyone under 18.
One reality-show expert disagreed, though, saying that by working with a less-established company, the Sunderlands would have had a better opportunity to protect their kids: "With a bigger company, there's a greater chance that the family could be railroaded into something or forced to keep the kids under exclusivity for an indefinite period of time," says Bridezilla supervising producer Jenny Hope. She also points out that a lack of credits on Magnetic's part doesn't necessarily mean the show couldn't have been legitimate. Plenty of companies, she says, are launched as a result of a great show idea.
For Magnetic—and for the Sunderland family— Adventures in Sunderland won't be that show.
Anna David is the author of the novels Party Girl and Bought and has written for The New York Times, Playboy, Details, Cosmo, and Redbook, among other publications. Her most recent book, Reality Matters, is an anthology of essays that she edited about reality shows.