How a 'Real Housewives' Suicide Sheds Light on Exploitation in Reality TV
Russell Armstrong's death raises questions about series focusing on the sick, weak and mentally ill as insiders reveal to THR a one-sided dynamic where the "star" almost always loses.
But the more outrageous the behavior onscreen, the more people watch. The Aug. 17 episode of MTV's Jersey Shore, which featured castmember Deena Cortese dabbling in booze-fueled lesbianism, pulled in 7.8 million viewers, powered by the youthful audience advertisers desire. Cable executives, thirsty for cheap programming, know that an entire season of an A&E hit like Hoarders can cost less than a few episodes of AMC's Mad Men and generate ratings on par with that acclaimed drama.
When The Real Housewives of Orange County first aired in March 2006, before the financial crash, it was "aspirational," focusing on the opulent lives these women were leading. But as the franchise grew, that conceit became untenable with 9 percent unemployment, so along came The Real Housewives of Atlanta, which still featured women with $3,000 handbags but introduced nearly nonstop catfights.
For a time, Atlanta was Bravo's highest-rated Housewives. That the stars often suffer personal problems outside the show -- several have been sued or forced into bankruptcy protection -- has not derailed viewer interest. But now that someone has hanged himself, all bets might be off.
"This is the worst-case scenario for the reality TV business," says one executive who declined to be named. "It's a very public suicide of a guy who was made to look absolutely terrible on that show. This death is causing people to think hard about the kinds of people we make shows about and whether they are equipped psychologically to be television stars."
Money is part of the problem.
Many hopefuls, including those in Galinsky's class, believe landing a show will make them rich. Like Taylor, the former call girl. Will this boost her $30,000-a-year income? "Absolutely," she says, no doubt influenced by stories about plucked-from-obscurity stars like Bethenny Frankel, who parlayed her fame gained on The Real Housewives of New York City into a spirits business she sold with a partner for $120 million. Reality stars such as Jersey Shore's Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino and Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi earn about $100,000 an episode. Sarah Palin was paid some $250,000 an episode for TLC's short-lived Sarah Palin's Alaska. Taylor Armstrong and her co-stars will make $135,000 apiece for season two of Housewives. (Armstrong was paid about $5,000 an episode for the first season.)
But most reality shows have casting budgets as low as $10,000 to $20,000 a season unless celebrities are involved.
Even celebrities get paid less than one might think. The big names on ABC's Dancing With the Stars are guaranteed a flat sum in the low six figures, but they only make significant money if they hang in till the final episodes.
"The goal isn't winning that mirror-ball trophy," says Gersh agent Todd Christopher. "It's about sticking around to keep increasing your fees."
Which makes Russell Armstrong's financial problems all the more glaring. While it would be simplistic to claim that Bravo or Real Housewives of Beverly Hills producers Evolution Media were responsible for his death, they are operating in an environment that remains unregulated and inadequately scrutinized. On many shows, for instance, participants sign "360-degree deals," notes Hayden Meyer, a partner and head of alternative TV at agency APA. That means the production company can take a percentage of any income a performer earns from books, appearances and the like.
Unfettered by contracts with AFTRA, SAG and other guilds, most networks have the right to replay each episode as often as they wish or to "repackage" series to create new episodes, without paying participants extra cash.
"It's a buyer's market," Meyer laments.
A 29-page contract obtained by THR for VH1's Saddle Ranch (the first season of which aired from March to June) shows how little onscreen talent can earn. For the gaggle of young men and women who appeared on the show -- about waiters and waitresses at Los Angeles' Saddle Ranch Chop House -- the contract stipulated each would receive "an all-inclusive fee for the Pilot equal to Five Hundred Dollars." The fee would go up to $1,000 for further episodes then increase by 5 percent per subsequent season or "cycle."
It also required that, for "no additional compensation," participants would be available when and where the producer wished to help with promotion.
Think that's bad? A contract for MTV's The Real World, recently leaked to The Village Voice, ties up participants for reunion shows and warns them that they could contract AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. The payoff for assuming such risks? Fifteen minutes of fame and a hefty dose of regret.
After attending an open casting call for Survivor with 5,000 others in 2005, Billy Garcia, a heavy-metal lover, went through a marathon session of interviews, all unpaid.
"There was a long, long process," he says. "You go to a regional interview, then to the L.A. final 50, and from that they took the 20 who actually got to film." Garcia was sequestered for 12 days in Los Angeles during the finals for season two, earning a paltry $100-a-day honorarium.
In all, he made $15,000 for the show, which is broadcast in more than 60 countries, and in order to get this he had to give up his day job at Blockbuster. That's a fraction of what Mark Burnett makes as executive producer; even for a flop like the Palin show, insiders say he made about $200,000 an episode.
"The worst thing to be is a contestant -- they usually don't get paid," admits Mark Cronin, executive producer of The Surreal Life. On the whole, "They may get a stipend, but they don't make a per-episode fee."
That's true no matter how much contestants abase themselves, as they did on the Surreal spinoff Flavor of Love: In one case, a contestant defecated on the floor. The reward for this public humiliation? "Dating Flavor Flav," says Cronin.