Network's reality shows deemed too restrictive

Bravo’s stable of reality competition shows is drawing scrutiny from New York magazine, which suggests in a cover story that the cabler’s hits “Top Chef” and “Project Runway” can sometimes put contestants through the wringer — with little tangible gain even for the shows’ winners.

The story, titled “The Near-Fame Experience,” is in the issue that hits newsstands today. It characterizes conditions on the net’s reality shows as grueling and suggests Bravo ties contestants’ hands too tightly after shows have aired.

While many of the restrictions it cites are typical of reality productions — no listening to iPods, no phone calls without producers‘ permission — others, like mandatory 18-hour days on “Project Runway,” are more particular to the net’s skill-intensive shows. “Sleep deprivation is rampant,” writes reporter Jennifer Senior. Unlike on dating reality shows, cast members are also prohibited from hooking up with each other (out of a concern that the net could be sued if a cast member contracts an STD).

The piece in some ways casts Bravo in a favorable light — the article calls the net’s shows “some of the most addictive programming on television” and allows net topper Lauren Zalaznick to lay out Bravo’s strategy, in which reality shows organized around topics like food and fashion are aimed at a high-income demo. But the story largely offers a general exploration of how difficult it is even for winners like Jay McCarroll of “Runway” to translate celebrity into career success.

It also offers examples of what contestants must give up to compete. For example, they sign over their life rights in perpetuity and aren’t allowed to appear on another net for a year. Bravo execs declined to comment on the piece because they didn’t have the opportunity to read it before publication.

The story is in some ways self-contradictory: It’s critical of Bravo for doing both too much and not enough for former cast members.

McCarroll points a finger at Bravo for not sufficiently helping winners. But for others, Bravo’s new arrangement with management firm Pangea to help contestants who’ve appeared on the show by managing them and their brand “may raise the specter of the old studio days, when movie stars didn’t own their careers,” Senior writes.

“After enduring the rigors of the show, however — the sleeplessness, the loneliness, the intense public scrutiny — many of the contestants believe, with some justification, that they’re entitled to the financial rewards the world offers them without Bravo’s intervention.”

Bravo’s other reality shows have also faced scrutiny. A March piece in the Los Angeles Times detailed the tensions as cast members from “The Real Housewives of Orange County” sought to harness the show’s spotlight to launch showbiz careers and other projects independent of the series and Bravo’s strictures.

Like the L.A. Times story, the New York piece shows the tricky balance nets face in embracing the genre: They need outspoken types to give their shows drama, but they then often find that controlling these personalities can be difficult.

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