April 28, 2004 -- A giant-sized controversy is brewing over a baby adoption special on "20/20" - and sending ABC execs into a tailspin. Millions of viewers across the country watched in surprise over the weekend as the network aired a sensational promo for Friday's segment, which pits five desperate couples against each other for the privilege of adopting a 16-year-old's baby.
A very personal, intimate process was made to look like a reality-show contest, with prospective parents dubbed "winners" and "losers."
Yesterday, complaints flooded into radio stations, Web sites and even the FCC - many of them noting that host Barbara Walters is not only a respected journalist, but also an adoptive mother.
"I've already sent my outrage to [the producer of "20/20"] making a reality show out of something so personal," wrote one user on the Web site eeadopt.com.
"While I haven't seen the show, it definitely sounds like the marketing department at ABC was attempting to add a reality TV spin, which is definitely an all-time low - especially when children are at stake," says radio journalist Jane Braverman, who's adopting a child.
"My friend's teenage son, who was passing through the living room when the promotion was airing, even found it offensive. He said, 'How could a child be a prize in a reality show?'"
The program, titled "Be My Baby," set to air Friday during May sweeps, follows five couples through open adoption, which means the adoptive parents and birth mother are in contact, identities are disclosed and there is the potential for contact in the future.
The birth mother, 16-year-old Jessica, is shown in interviews with the prospective parents and in childbirth.
Jennifer Marando, co-director of A Child's Waiting adoption agency in Akron, Ohio, which participated in the show, says she and her sister and co-director, Crissy Kolarik, were completely disheartened by the teasers.
"We didn't go into this to outrage anyone," she says.
"We chose to participate in order to educate people on open adoption. But it's not an educational piece at this point - it's an entertainment piece made into a reality-show theme."
Marando confirms A Child's Waiting has received a number of complaints from distressed viewers.
For its part, ABC said it intended "Be My Baby" to be a realistic look at open adoption in America.
Amid the fury, ABC has since yanked the promo and replaced it with a toned-down version that presents the program less as a reality show and more as a documentary.
Jeffrey Schneider, head of ABC publicity, blamed the controversy on the misleading promotional spots.
"Clearly, the first promo that ran was leaving people with the wrong impression of what this hour is all about," said Schneider.
"It is a thoughtful report on the process of open adoption that we think will be of interest to the American people. We simply wanted to make sure that people understood what we would be broadcasting."
Marando hopes the positive aspects of her agency's work don't get lost amid the uproar.
"The producers shot a follow-up at the baptism," she said, "then again six months later to show that open adoption can be successful."
I can't believe it. Now we're auctioning human life on TV.
What will they do for next year's May sweeps? Executions?