TORONTO - After allowing viewers to gape at the excesses of the rich bride, support the frugality of the poor bride, and cheer the weight loss of the bulging bride, reality TV is dishing up a new twist to televised nuptials – brace yourself for the teen bride.
Slice is currently casting in Canada for "My Teenage Wedding," a series that has raised eyebrows among some parents who worry the show may be cashing in on the vulnerabilities of young love and could negatively impact youth audiences.
But those behind the series say the show is more of a social documentary that could even serve as a conversation starter for parents worried about their teens’ relationships.
Nonetheless, the series, which will air next winter, concerns 38-year-old mother Gabrielle Domingues, who saw a notice about the show’s casting call.
"I just think it's borderline inappropriate," she said of youth-focused reality show. "It's one thing to show adults in that light...and another to show minors exposing their mistakes and their vulnerabilities at such a raw and impressionable age, and by association making an impression and influencing youth who are watching."
The proliferation of youth-focused reality shows makes the self-described pop culture junkie from Toronto wonder how much media attention her 10-year-old will want as he grows up, particularly since he already enjoys making YouTube videos with his family.
"Because they see themselves reflected back on the screen, a lot of kids now do think 'I could do that, I could be on that show,’” she said. "As a parent, I can teach my children what's appropriate and what's not…You need to have a dialogue."
Those behind "My Teenage Wedding" say the show is a way to start that conversation if a parent is concerned about their child’s relationships or the impact reality shows might have.
"It actually gives them a vehicle and a reason to bring it up," said Christine Shipton, vice president of original content at Shaw Media — Slice’s parent company — who notes she hasn’t heard any parental concerns from the airing of four pilot episodes in the spring.
"If this is a point of view that you’re concerned is affecting your kids in a negative way, you need to talk to them about it."
Response to the show’s casting call has been "robust" so far, said Shipton. Applicants have included teens from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and sexualities.
The youngest applicant so far has been 17, and producers expect most of those looking to be on the show to be between 17 and 19.
"We’re certainly not aggressively going out and saying ‘Ooh let's find the 15-year-old.’ There’s no sense of salaciousness like that," said Shipton.
The show is part of a strategy at Slice to broaden the channel’s audience and is meant to go beyond a typical wedding planning series.
"It’s really a story about when a teen world meets an adult world," said Shipton. "It’s as much about the mother-daughter relationship, relations with siblings, relations with friends, and then of course the pay off — the wedding — and how we as an audience feel at the end about this couple."
The show, being made by Cineflix Productions, will have 14 half-hour episodes, and will follow a variety of young couples as they navigate their way to the altar.
For Mara Shapiro, the show and others like it are an opportunity to communicate with her teenagers.
"If you want to connect with your kids, talk about things they’re interested in," said the co-founder of Momfaze.com, a website that offers advice for parents with teens.
"If it happens to be Teen Wedding, then watch with them and ask them ‘What do you think about that? Would you want to be married at that age? What do you think about love?’ To me those would be great opportunities to talk to your kids."
While the Toronto mother of three teenagers doesn’t think much of the latest youth-focused reality shows herself, Shapiro notes she’d be more concerned if she felt teens were making certain life choices just so they could get on TV.
Parenting adviser and author Judy Arnall points out that adults shouldn't discount the ability of teenagers to make good decisions on their own.
"Teens are very smart, they’re very savvy. They know a lot more than we give them credit for," said Arnall.
"All through time kids have watched and listened to inappropriate stuff and that’s a very small part of a teenager's life. If it’s buffered by good relationships with parents… then they don’t have to worry."
University of British Columbia professor Daniel Keyes, who has conducted research on reality TV, adds that while it's difficult to say just what message teen audiences take away from such shows, it could be one that differs from what producers aimed for.
"Viewers might be making different meanings out of it. And it may be a positive thing," he said. "Sit down with your children and watch really bad TV tonight … you’re at least going to be talking about what values you have."
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