The Challenges of Reality Casting Post-#MeToo

When production shut down on ABC’s “Bachelor in Paradise” last summer amidst claims of sexual misconduct involving contestants Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson, speculation ran rampant about the parties involved and what might have drunkenly occurred on- and off-camera. Lawsuits were contemplated and threatened, but in the end — after an internal investigation by Warner Bros. Television declared no misconduct had taken place — the show essentially used the events to help promote the launch of its season.

While the real-life drama in unscripted may sound like fodder for a season of “UnReal,” it’s indicative of the overall climate in Hollywood right now, given executives and talent coming under fire as past misbehavior comes to light. In the time of #MeToo and Time’s Up, the practices surrounding reality show casting and acceptable on-screen behavior should theoretically be evolving, too — not that many are willing to address it just yet.

After Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet toward former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett led to her subsequent firing from ABC, “Big Brother” host Julie Chen said at Variety’s TV summit that racist, sexist or homophobic contestants would no longer get through on her show. The comments, which were made following the current 20th season’s casting, came around the time the series’ live feed showed contestants Rachel Swindler and Angela Rummans comparing their “ghetto” tans, and fans calling for participant J.C. Mounduix’s ousting for inappropriately touching contestants. (Mounduix has also since come under fire for asking Swindler if she is transgender and using the n-word during a conversation with fellow contestant Bayleigh Dayton.)

While CBS chose not to broadcast all of those incidents on-air (producers issued a statement saying the contestants in question had been warned about their behavior), the Eye declined to comment on whether or how their casting processes for such shows have evolved to reflect a more inclusive and safer environment. Netflix, NBC, ABC and Warner Bros. all also declined to comment on how their practices have changed.

President of entertainment and development Julie Pizzi, whose Bunim/Murray Prods. is responsible for such long-running series as MTV’s “The Challenge,” E!’s “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” and A&E’s “Born This Way,” says the casting process is an ever-evolving one — especially with a world increasingly invested in social media and oversharing.

“Even if you look at five years ago you wouldn’t necessarily check people’s social media or do a deeper dive into how they put themselves out there,” she says. “We’re able to do that now and we’re actually more informed on how people present themselves.”

Pizzi says her productions “go deep” to background check every cast member; social- media scans are just one layer of that process. But, she says, social media is an important part of the process because it speaks to how potential cast members want to present themselves to the world.

“It really does inform us about a person and whether some of the things they’re sharing are truthful,” she says, “[You get] a better sense of who that person is publicly and personally … before casting someone on the show.”

According to freelance casting director and Casting Society of America member Candra Nazzaro, whose credits include NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” Bravo’s “Below Deck Mediterranean,” Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and ABC’s “Bachelor Pad” and “Wife Swap,” social-media has become an essential tool in how casting directors find contestants for these shows in the first place. But much like how social media is just one part of the research process, the casting department is just one piece in the hiring puzzle.

“As a casting director, we only have the power to show executive producers and network executives the people who we think would be best for the show,” Nazzaro says. “Working backwards, though, it is those same executive producers and network executives who give direction about the cast they want us to find in the first place. If we want things to change, we need more women in the right places to make those decisions.”

“We aren’t looking to dictate who people should be.”
Julie Pizzi of Bunim/Murray Prods., which produces “The Challenge

It’s obvious that ratings benefit from a certain degree of controversy, thanks to the old bus-crash analogy. That’s potentially why when issues come up on a contestant’s social-media feed, even after they’ve been officially cast, producers may question comments rather than simply writing a person off. At that point it becomes a fine line between reflecting a diversity of opinions and disallowing bigotry or bias.

“People are allowed to have their own beliefs,” Pizzi says. “We aren’t looking to dictate who people should be, but we go deeper and we have more information now than we would have in the past to make a determination on whether that person is a good fit for the show.”

Nazzaro adds that while that line is “fully in the hands of the producers and ultimately the executive producers,” personally she would rather err on the side of doing better than drafting ratings off bad behavior.

“Aren’t we supposed to be more creative and innovative?” she says. “To me, it’s not OK to watch certain things happen in real life, so why should it be OK to let it happen on national television?”

At BMP, Pizzi says creators and casting directors are more sensitive to potential issues of racism, homophobia, sexism or transphobia than they perhaps have been in the past. So while the company still looks for tentpole such personality traits as competitiveness when casting for shows including “The Challenge,” they’re more aware of how those traits could manifest themselves in relation to the other contestants and the greater industrywide call for inclusiveness.

“If a man or woman was joking about something, we take it more seriously now because other people could possibly be more offended. In terms of sexuality or how often [participants] hook up, we’re just more sensitive to what the meaning is behind that,” Pizzi says. “The thing about these shows is that most of the time the participants are being watched and there are cameras around. In our experience things don’t necessarily go past a certain point because of that.”

“We never want to put other cast or crew members in harm’s way,” Nazzaro says. “If I interview somebody and they tell me about how they’ve gotten into a bunch of physical altercations but weren’t arrested, I know they might have a clean background but I can’t in good conscience move them forward. I would never want to know I put somebody dangerous on set.”

But what happens when that line is inadvertently crossed and someone’s salacious behavior or hateful comments put another person in jeopardy? While each network has its own (ever-evolving) legal checklist of ways to avoid landing in that situation, sometimes it becomes necessary for producers to step in.

“The participants know the rules and they know if they break those rules they get kicked off the show,” Pizzi says. “So generally speaking the participants don’t go too far. In the event that a participant does, we have security on every show. If something is going too far or is on the brink of illegal behavior of course we step in. We wouldn’t sacrifice the safety of an individual on our cast to tell a story.”

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