Reality TV Grapples With Racial Reckoning Amid Firings

ONE TIME USE ONLY -THR-18rep_realityfirings_W_main-Illustration by Zohar Lazar- H 2020
Zohar Lazar

Producers are being pushed to vet talent and to confront the history of tokenism in the genre: "Networks have treated casting diverse groups of people like fulfilling a quota."

Over one week in June, the dismissals came almost daily. Eight castmembers from five popular reality TV franchises were expeditiously fired over racist social media posts and, in one particularly damning revelation, news of a malicious act toward their lone Black co-star.

Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute, longtime stars of Real Housewives spinoff Vanderpump Rules, called the police on former castmate Faith Stowers in 2018 in an attempt to implicate her in a crime she did not commit. Bravo axed the pair, along with two co-stars with a history of racist tweets, Max Boyens and Brett Caprioni, days after Stowers recounted the event during a June 2 Instagram Live — but the need for such a purge on a nearly exclusively white series highlights a pervasive problem facing TV's most prolific genre. Reality casting, from representation to vetting, demands more scrutiny from networks.

"For years, networks have treated casting diverse groups of people like fulfilling a quota," says casting producer Jazzy Collins. "Casting should never be about how many BIPOC you can throw into one show."

Collins, who worked on five seasons of The Bachelor franchise, recently posted an open letter to ABC in the wake of Matt James being named the franchise's first male Black lead. In it, she recalled roadblocks where she was told not to cast applicants who were "too Black." Multiple casting professionals and unscripted producers who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter shared similar examples on other projects, pointing to a history of tokenism that follows the genre.

Black people tend to be the only or one of very few when cast on shows with predominantly white casts — or part of reality shows crafted for Black audiences like VH1's Love & Hip-Hop franchise. "There needs to be a greater emphasis on casting different kinds of people from the beginning," says casting director Anthony Lucente, "because most of the people who apply for these shows are the ones who already see themselves on TV."

Lucente and his business partner Risa Tanania did casting for the Netflix series Dating Around, a show that bucks familiar reality formulas by highlighting a wide range of races, age groups and sexual orientations. The pair, who say they felt they had to stack the deck with queer people and people of color during the aughts, describe the genre's representation issue as one that's been improving. They also pointed to one lazy casting approach as a reason why so many reality shows end up with bad apples. (Scandal, after all, is hardly a new development for the genre.)

"The new route of casting is going through social media, but you're only seeing one side of a person," says Tanania. "A large part of the vetting process is finding trust from a community, not just the one person. That means getting on the phone and cold-calling a lot of people."

These latest firings, and the broader cultural reckoning that inspired them, have left many in the industry scrambling to avoid future missteps. Bravo, which also parted ways with a castmember of the series Below Deck Mediterranean, is said to have increased the vetting process across the board. And several producers cite multiple networks that have engaged in dialogues about including more people of color in casting submissions. "I think buyers are embracing change," says Jeff Jenkins, the producer behind the recent Paris Jackson docuseries Unfiltered, "but change comes slow. A show filming today might not air for a year."

As is the case in many corners of the entertainment industry, the ones with greenlight power are also still overwhelmingly white. Jenkins, a veteran of reality powerhouse Bunim Murray who launched his own production company with 3 Ball Media Group in 2019, bemoans the lack of people of color he sees when he goes into a pitch.

"I can't tell you how many times someone has asked me for the next Kardashians," says Jenkins. "I have brought those families to buyers, families of A-list Black entertainers, and they haven't committed. I wonder if it's because that buyer in the room isn't Black."

Many pitches like Jenkins' may now be getting second looks from networks. And if it isn't motivated by a desire to make rosters less white, it may come from a need to stay competitive in a rapidly changing climate. Netflix, initially a force only in scripted, is becoming a reality leader both in hits and representation with such recent breakouts as Love Is Blind, Floor Is Lava and the Queer Eye reboot. Nearly every individual who spoke for this story praises the outlet for taking an active interest in casting and being ahead of the curve in embracing nonwhite content.

"Look at what the original Queer Eye did," says Tanania. "The unscripted space, in a way, was the first to bring in a lot of diversity to TV. This moment comes with a lot of heavy baggage, but I think people are finally seeking out diversity instead of being slapped for not having it and trying to fix it."

This story first appeared in the July 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.