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Has MTV ‘Gone Too Far’ this time?

Did Adam Goldstein’s role in the production of "Gone Too Far," which exposed him to the chaos of active addiction, contribute to his relapse, and is MTV exploiting his death in order to chase ratings?
Image: Adam Goldstein, aka DJ AM
Adam Goldstein, known as DJ AM, died of an overdose on August 28.Noel Vasquez / Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

Halfway through the first episode of the new MTV reality show “Gone Too Far,” the star, Adam Goldstein, better known as DJ AM, is shown speaking to a heroin addict named Amy, a 23-year-old from Philadelphia he is trying to persuade to enter rehab.

“My dad died when I was 19 of AIDS and he was a full-blown drug addict,” says Mr. Goldstein, 36, in a humble, matter-of-fact tone. “And I didn’t deal with it for a long time. I didn’t get sober until my 25th birthday, pretty much.”

Amy, whose last name is not revealed, breaks down. The first part of the show profiled her broken-hearted family and showed her injecting heroin into her hand. “I used to be a good person,” she says, sitting next to Mr. Goldstein in her family’s home. “I just don’t think I’m meant to live like this, disappointing my family and disappointing myself and stealing and being a loser.”

“What’s crazy,” replies Mr. Goldstein, “is you sound exactly like me.”

By the end of the hourlong show, which had its premiere Oct. 12, Amy is shown having gone through rehab successfully with Mr. Goldstein’s support, her hair nicely cut and a healthy glow in her face. It is a happy ending, much like the one Mr. Goldstein seemed to be living when he filmed the seven-episode series last spring and summer.

But despite presenting himself as the model of a recovered addict with more than a decade of sobriety, Mr. Goldstein, a celebrity disc jockey known for his talent spinning as well as the women he dated — like Nicole Richie and the actress Mandy Moore — did not have a happy ending.

On Aug. 28, he was found face down on his bed in his Lafayette Street apartment in SoHo with a pharmacy’s worth of prescription drugs and a crack pipe nearby. The New York medical examiner concluded that he had died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs and cocaine. The toxicology report said Mr. Goldstein had ingested OxyContin, Hydrocodone or Vicodin, Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, Benadryl and Levamisole.

The reality show built around this celebrity recovering addict, setting an example for others of how to pull their lives together, had been scheduled to premiere less than six weeks later, Oct. 5. It was immediately pulled from MTV’s lineup.

The network says it has since received the approval of Mr. Goldstein’s family to televise the series, but the decision has raised many questions: Is MTV exploiting the attention the tragedy received in order to chase ratings? Does Mr. Goldstein’s death undercut the show’s message? And — as some drug rehabilitation experts ask — did Mr. Goldstein’s role in the production, which exposed him to the chaos of active addiction, contribute to his relapse?

In the end, the questions may come down to this: how well did MTV know its host?

“Doing this show could certainly have been a relapse trigger for Mr. Goldstein,” said Dr. Harris Stratyner, the vice president of Caron New York, one of the oldest drug rehabilitation centers in the country, who had not met Mr. Goldstein but watched the first episode of “Gone Too Far.”

Dr. Stratyner said that many 12-step programs recommend that recovering addicts perform public service such as counseling others. But recovering addicts are also warned to stay away from people and situations that offer temptations.

The series certainly shows graphic drug use, with young addicts sniffing aerosol computer cleaner and smoking crack. Those connected with “Gone Too Far” say they never intended to put Mr. Goldstein in harm’s way, but some wonder if that was an unintended result. “It crosses all of our minds, a terrible tragedy,” said Tony DiSanto, the president of programming for MTV.

He pointed out that the series grew out of outreach work that Mr. Goldstein was already doing to help addicts. Mr. Goldstein originally had approached MTV, but with another series idea in mind: during a meeting in the summer of 2008 in Mr. DiSanto’s corner office on the 23rd floor of the MTV building in Times Square, Mr. Goldstein and his manager, Paul Rosenberg, pitched a show “like a reality ‘Entourage’-style show focused on Adam,” Mr. Rosenberg recalled.

Mr. Goldstein, though not a household name, had achieved celebrity status as a nightclub D.J. He dated starlets, performed with Jay-Z and Madonna, and counted Paris Hilton and Samantha Ronson as friends.

But in the pitch meeting at MTV, Mr. DiSanto said that shows about the everyday lives of celebrities were no longer getting high ratings, Mr. Rosenberg recalled. The conversation turned to one of Mr. Goldstein’s passions, helping addicts.

“He didn’t just start doing this when the show started,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “Adam was known as one of those guys that if you had a friend with a problem and needed someone to talk to, he was that guy.”

That struck a chord. Mr. DiSanto had recently met with the TV producer Michael Hirschorn, the former executive vice president of original programming at VH1, a sister channel of MTV. He was proposing a youth version of “Intervention,” the hit show on A&E in which friends and families confront addicted loved ones, often in a living-room ambush, and demand they enter rehab.

Mr. Hirschorn had developed the reality shows “Flavor of Love” and “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila,” both hits but also controversial because of their tawdry subjects (women brawled to win the favor of the clock-wearing Flavor Flav on “Flavor of Love”). Mr. Hirschorn, a former editor of Spin magazine and a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, was interested in doing shows with more meaning.

“People are wanting reality to be more real,” he said last week. “At the same time, as a producer who works primarily in reality, you get exhausted with frivolous stuff that doesn’t matter.”

Mr. Hirschorn and Mr. Goldstein agreed to do an “Intervention”-type show. While it was still in pre-production in September 2008, Mr. Goldstein was in a devastating plane crash in South Carolina, which killed four people and left him and Travis Barker, the drummer from the band Blink-182, badly burned.

After that, Mr. Goldstein dreaded flying. He also suffered other fallout. “He was struggling with some very severe depression and survivor’s guilt,” said BJ Hickman, an intervention expert who became close to Mr. Goldstein while appearing on two episodes of “Gone Too Far.”

Ms. Hickman and others said that Mr. Goldstein was taking prescription anxiety medication and pain killers following the plane crash.

Justin Hoffman, a Las Vegas D.J. and friend of Mr. Goldstein from recovery, blamed those drugs for starting a snowball effect that led to his relapse. “I think the plane crash killed him,” he said. “It just took a year for it to do it.”

Mr. Goldstein had struggled with many issues, stealing cars in high school, and about five years ago underwent gastric bypass surgery, losing nearly 150 pounds. In 1997, he attempted suicide with a pistol that jammed.

While filming, Mr. Goldstein continued to travel widely around the country and to stay up late D.J.-ing at clubs. “The amount of travel was extraordinary,” Mr. Hirschorn said. During the shoot of the pilot episode in Hartford, Conn., Mr. Goldstein “finished, then got in a car to drive six hours to do a D.J. gig, and then was going to drive back six hours,” Mr. Hirschorn said.

In one episode, Mr. Goldstein picks up a crack pipe. Ms. Hickman said it was clear he was wrestling with the tug of his own addictions.

“As soon as the cameras stopped, he put it down,” she said. “He had a moment holding that crack pipe, and he had to talk about it. He spoke to his sponsor. He made program calls.”

Before his death, MTV had posted on its Web site an interview in which Mr. Goldstein talked about the experience, saying, “I realized my palms were sweaty and I was like, wait a minute, this is not smart for me to be holding this.”

In the last few weeks, that segment of the video was removed from the MTV Web site and an article there referring to it was altered to delete the reference. An MTV spokeswoman confirmed that the site was edited.

Mr. Goldstein had his personal therapist with him during much of the filming, Ms. Hickman said.

“Adam did everything we ask any addict to do,” she said. “He still went to meetings almost every single day. He spoke with his sponsor every single day. He had people around him at all times when he was exposed to drugs and alcohol.”

But even those efforts may have been insufficient for a recovering addict in a high-pressure situation, said Dr. Matt Torrington, a family medicine doctor in Los Angeles with a specialty in addiction who has treated celebrities. “If you want to stay monogamous with your wife, don’t get into a hotel room alone with a woman — even if you’re only in there to fix her Wi-Fi. It’s not a good idea,” he said.

This summer, VH1 was forced to cancel two reality shows, “Megan Wants a Millionaire” and “I Love Money 3” after a cast member who participated in both was charged with the murder of his ex-wife, then committed suicide. The incident, widely reported, has provoked soul-searching among some reality TV executives over how adequately they vet cast members.

Mr. DiSanto said MTV Networks is looking into revising its policies about vetting.

Mr. Hirschorn said insurance companies have tightened their demands. “It’s medical evaluations, psych evaluations, criminal background checks for any competition reality show,” he said.

Most of the emphasis, however, is on investigating cast members, not hosts. “We were in a business relationship” with Mr. Goldstein, Mr. Hirschorn said. “It’s not our place or the network’s place to know everything about his life.”

Although the inevitable questions have been raised whether MTV is seeking to profit from the publicity surrounding Mr. Goldstein’s death, Mr. DiSanto said the network could easily have absorbed the costs of canceling the show, which cost far less to produce than more complicated reality shows like “The Hills.”

The ratings for Episode 1 were tepid, averaging 499,000 viewers during the hour, according to the Nielsen Company. On the same Monday night a year earlier, an episode of “The Hills” averaged 2.4 million viewers.

Both Mr. DiSanto and Mr. Hirschorn emphasized that they believe the show is a powerful statement that will inspire other addicts to get clean.

MTV included a dedication to Mr. Goldstein at the start of the show and an “In Memory of” title at the end, but it did nothing to inform viewers that the host had died of a drug overdose. The one hint came in a testimonial at the end from Amy, filmed after Mr. Goldstein’s death, in which she praises him for saving her and says she is still drug-free six months later. She alludes obliquely to the way he died.

“That wasn’t him that night,” she says. “That was his addiction.”

This article, first appeared in The New York Times.