All reality television competitions run on drama. That’s what casting directors look for in participants; a show of calm, broad-minded, flexible folks certainly wouldn’t be compelling for audiences (and the ratings would be snoozy as well).
But recent headlines suggest a change may need to happen. While these reality TV competitions are entertaining and contribute to enormous viewership, a number of contestants push the envelope excessively — backstabbing, gossiping, and revealing outrageous behavior. The latest example was Sunday night, on the history-making live finale of CBS’ “Big Brother,” when fan favorite Taylor Hale overcame numerous adversities to become the first Black female to ever win a non-celebrity version of the game, taking home $750,000.
In a house with several other contestants who severely bullied her, Hale, a former pageant queen, was made fun of and unfairly ostracized for weeks, becoming the underdog for viewers to root for. Outraged and very vocal on social media, fans voted for her to also be named America’s Favorite Houseguest (meaning additional prize money).
But despite the happy ending, the popular social experiment series, now in its 24th season, was deeply disturbing for viewers to watch at times. Said Twitter fan @PopCultureBits: “This season has been pretty sad actually. #bb24 sad in a depressing way. The racial tensions – bullying…pretty heartbreaking to watch and after being in a pandemic- I don’t need that…my last season of watching.”
Former “Amazing Race” contestant turned casting producer Jodi Wincheski described these ensemble reality series as a scenario that is similar to high school.
“Not everyone we cast is going to get along,” the CBS reality star acknowledged. “People can be cruel. These shows are a direct reflection of what’s happening in the real world and perhaps viewers can learn to become more compassionate when it’s right in front of their face.”
That would be nice, but in the meantime, IndieWire spoke to several former reality TV contestants about how competition shows could better set them up for success — and what should be done in advance to weed out more problematic individuals.
CBS’ “The Challenge’s” Kyland Young and Azah Awasum, members of “The Cookout,” the all-Black alliance which dominated “Big Brother” last year, watched what happened this season closely.
Young’s hope is that casting directors will take additional time with their contestants to make them more aware of the emotional, psychological and mental hurdles they will face in the game, acclimating them to what it’s like to be with a bunch of strangers, and closely watched by millions of people on television.
“In talking to my friends who have been on other reality TV competitions, more conversations should be had with the casting directors from the very start,” Young said. “I don’t think that anybody’s given enough of a warning as far as like, ‘Hey, this is a high pressure, intense situation. You will be looked at with immense scrutiny–more than you have in your entire life. We are not lawyers, we are so excited in signing up for this, we overlook things. There is very little to lose for casting teams to add in that extra step; I truly think it is a missed opportunity.”
Awasum thought the casting directors from Netflix’s “Love is Blind” did a terrific job in finding all sorts of different people from various cultures to come together.
“I also think ABC’s ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘The Bachelorette’ made strides to turn the tide in casting more diverse faces. It’s important to continue those discussions.”
Having a diverse, authentic cast that doesn’t get represented onscreen was vital for veteran casting agent Lynne Spillman, who most recently worked on Amazon’s “Lizzo’s Watch Out For the Big Grrrls.”
“Time and time again, we see beautiful, thin women all over the media,” Spillman said. “‘Lizzo’s Watch Out For the Big Grrrls’ shows the world that you don’t have to have a specific body type to be perfect. With the very few roles given to curvy and diverse women, they would be hard pressed to find agents, managers etc. to represent and advocate for them. That’s exactly what Lizzo did by introducing these beautiful women (inside and out) to the world. I hope this show (and others that follow) will inspire the next generation to be more accepting of their own bodies and other people that look different from them in general.”
JC Olivera/Getty Images for Amazon Studios
Improving the Casting Process
Kate Casey, host of the podcast “Reality Life with Kate Casey,” sees these competition shows facing the same plight as other programming. “How do you make each season stand out? The stakes are higher for casting producers, who have a difficult time managing over-the-top contestants. You can do so much vetting, but you can’t always anticipate how someone will cope with cameras and isolation. The last thing a network wants is a problematic person, but unfortunately it happens.”
Netflix contestant Trevor St. Agathe, who was on “The Circle,” described the reality TV competition casting process as a “tricky” one.
“For ‘The Circle,’ I had three interviews with casting, a psych evaluation, and background checks in the USA and Canada,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s standard for reality TV, but I thought that was pretty thorough. However, a person can tell you whatever they think you want to hear in order to get on TV. Then once the cameras are rolling, they’re a completely different person.”
St. Agathe said that these competition shows select their cast based on who is going to give them the best show.
“While I do think they want most cast members to be likable, mission objective number one is to group personalities that will conflict. I think shows would much rather put out fires as opposed to play[ing] it safe. For a lot of series, the drama is a bigger focus than naming a winner of the competition.”
Racism presents another, unfortunately recurring, issue in reality TV casting.
“I feel like when the production companies have a set of diverse people casting, they try to sprinkle everything,” explained Tiffany Wilson, a Black casting producer who worked on “Divorce Court”. “When you have an all-white Caucasian casting company, they’ll look for people they think look like them. And that’s because they’re told by the network to cast more Caucasian people. It makes it hard being a woman of color, thinking you have a seat at the table, when you are there to meet the same quota that they are, looking for 5 percent African American.”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” alumni Laganja Estranja can see “huge room for improvement” when it comes to multicultural casting.
“Racism definitely plays a part in casting, and often we see too much typecasting for stereotypes,” she said. “Sure, every show needs its bully, but why is it that often more times than not minorities have to play this role? I do think some reality TV competition shows have identified these issues and are working to diversify their casts and roles. But overall, American television and producers have it down to a science that many don’t want to change or veer away from.”
If reality TV competition series can “step their game up” when it comes to taking care of contestants’ basic needs a little better, that might ease tensions in the game, suggested “FBoy Island’s” Garrett Morosky.
“When you put a diverse group of people together and the potential of fame or ‘clout’ or money is on the line, especially when the majority of the people on the show come from small towns and don’t have much going on in life… well, some people tend to do whatever it takes,” he said.
“As humans we adapt and when money and fame is on the line some people will get scared and some people will break the matrix and put on a show,” Morosky said.
His suggestion is to have producers and casting executives work with contestants after the show.
“They should have an agency or something that helps with taking a contestant’s career to the next level,” Morosky said. “They would make money off of those individuals. However, [right now] producers pigeonhole people and say ‘you can’t work with anyone but us for another year after the date of air.’ That stops people from being able to achieve careers in entertainment.”
Morosky, whose next project (along with St. Agathe) is appearing on “Reality of Love,” with relationship coach Nicole Moore, a new BSpoke TV series, also thinks it would be smart for casting producers to take into account contestants’ mental state after doing competition series like this. “A lot of people can’t handle it. And they should give each individual a counselor at their disposal till the next season airs.”
It remains to be seen whether the broadcast and streaming networks will spend significant time re-evaluating the casting process on reality TV competitions. While there have been numerous complaints on social media from viewers, viewership for these series remains robust, which means less impetus for change. Barring boycotts, it’s likely that the way reality TV is made now is unlikely to change much in the near future — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.