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.
Cable shows like these have budgets that would barely cover catering for a primetime scripted series. While major reality programs such as American Idol and The Amazing Race cost considerably more -- the latter at one point topped $2.2 million an episode -- "on the low end, an episode can be as inexpensive as $35,000 for one of the lifestyle shows on HGTV," says Meyer.
The broadcast networks average $600,000 to $700,000 for a one-hour reality show, but cable networks generally pay less than half of that. The budgets for two reality programs obtained by THR -- on condition that the programs not be named -- reveal how little of a show's money goes to the people onscreen.
The budget for an hourlong show with a three-day shoot came in at $741,651. Principal cast? $1. One 30-minute pilot cost $386,431. Onscreen talent? Zero.
Sitting in his airy Hollywood office, surrounded by a collection of pop-culture dolls, Doron Ofir is one of the experts in hooking the talent that makes these shows work. He's a leading casting director of reality shows, but he's not getting rich either and bemoans the fact that he and his peers receive no profit participation in the shows they cast.
Growing up in New York, the son of Israeli immigrants and bullied at school for being gay and effeminate, he wanted to escape, so "I would cut school, take the train, walk the streets, and by the time I was 15 I was already in the club scene."
Soon, Ofir was running those clubs, building an invaluable Rolodex along the way. "I've been collecting lists of movers and shakers," he says. Ofir moved to Los Angeles, where his lists paid off big-time in the reality world. He'd already found contenders for Survivor and Temptation Island, then a friend who worked for SallyAnn Salsano's 495 Productions asked him to cast Jersey Shore.
Because of where he grew up, "I knew what a 'guido' was," says Ofir, referring to the show's Italian-American cast. And he knew where to find guidos, too. With his database of 350,000 names and recruiters he sent to the tri-state area, he selected about 250 serious contenders and boiled them down to 50. For their first season, none got paid -- though they've made millions since.
Ofir never expresses doubt about whether it was right to put inexperienced characters like these in front of a camera or about the long-term consequences to their lives; they are among the lucky few who have hit it big financially.
But he notes that each member of the final group was extensively screened for "psychology and background, to make sure they have no felonies, make sure that by the time you deliver them to the network they are a sealed package. There is a written exam, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, 500 questions that track inconsistencies in a person."
That's a test another reality kingpin, therapist Dr. Drew Pinsky of VH1's Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, scoffs at, arguing testing must be better and that reality shows should provide counseling before, during and well after shooting.
During a recent roundtable, he told THR that these tests are hopelessly inadequate. "Unfortunately, the personality-disorder people are the ones that end up in reality shows, without exception," said Pinsky. "The psychiatric, psychological screening really doesn't ask very sophisticated questions. … The thresholds are ridiculous. They are on the order of, 'Have you ever thought about suicide before?' "
That question might not even have been posed to Housewives' Russell Armstrong as such tests are rarely given to secondary characters whose lives intersect those of the principals.
Psychological screenings help absolve reality producers from legal liability. But they also impart peace of mind. Consider Brian Gibson, co-executive producer of TLC's Freaky Eaters. Likable and well-meaning, he sits in a Burbank editing room watching an episode being cut together about Nikki, 34 (her last name is withheld by the show), a large woman who has an obsession with corn starch, which she downs by the box load.
"People want to be helped," argues Gibson. "Our show is inherently about helping people."
That's a view often repeated by those who work in the reality-sickness genre. Still, it's hard not to recoil as Nikki gets out of a car, a white cloud hovering over her from the foodstuff she has been consuming, or to see how people like this will be helped by having their obsessive-compulsive behavior aired for all to see.
Like many reality shows, Gibson says his company, Shed Media, pays for on-site therapy -- though he acknowledges that there is a limit to how long this continues after shooting ends.
"The only way this can be good and healthy for these people is if there's a lot of very expensive aftercare," says Pinsky -- something hardly any of the low-budget sickness shows have the money to provide.
Even Gibson admits other production companies are less scrupulous than his. "Sometimes," he says, "if you put great material first, the people can fall by the wayside."