James Callenberger has produced reality shows for MTV, VH1, National Geographic, and Fox. Writing under a pseudonym, he explains how sex and romance are manufactured behind the scenes on reality TV.
Producing reality TV isn’t for the faint of heart. Nearly every show, regardless of the nondisclosure and arbitration agreements that cast and crew are required to sign, faces the risk of a PR explosion if the methods used to create compelling TV entertainment are exposed in all their sordid glory. From the perennial allegations of vote rigging on American Idol to the occasional Caitlyn Jenner traffic death, ugly reality has a way of usurping the most carefully crafted story lines and focusing audience attention on what goes on behind the scenes. This week’s scandal on Bachelor in Paradise, involving allegations of sexual misconduct between cast members DeMario Jackson and Corinne Olympios, demonstrates the risks that both cast members and producers face when they sacrifice safety and self-interest on the altar of reality-TV spectacle.
For those just tuning in, news broke Sunday that Bachelor in Paradise suspended production pending investigation of “misconduct” on the set in Mexico. While no charges have been filed, a producer apparently reported what appeared to be nonconsensual sexual activity between the two contestants, triggering a full investigation by ABC and Warner Bros. of the incident. Unverified reports claim the production staff encouraged the two to hook up, and that by the end of a sexual encounter in a hot tub, Olympios may have been too intoxicated to give consent. Olympios has reportedly lawyered up.
As a seasoned reality-TV producer, I’ve both led and endured countless crew meetings regarding alcohol and drug consumption and sexual activity among cast members. Television executives are overwhelmingly risk-averse, and the whiff of litigation can ruin a career, so we make sure that when we go into the field, we know the rules: no drunk driving, no drugs in front of kids, no nonconsensual sex. If we see that someone is moving toward nonconsensual sex, we step in, or better yet, encourage another cast member to step in, and capture the fallout on camera.
At the same time, on a show like Bachelor in Paradise, the drunken hook-up is the coin of the realm. Even on shows less romantic than the Bachelor franchise, producers plan dalliances in preproduction. For example, years ago I was producing a show whose lead was a young man new to the entertainment business, and one of our season-long arcs involved a romantic relationship with a pseudo-celebrity. Producers reached out to a handful of potential cast members and asked if they would be interested in hooking up with our guy on the show. The one who was up for it got the part — she knew what she was getting into and used it to extend her fame into a 16th minute.
One can’t overestimate the value of that 16th minute of fame. More screen time translates into more social-media followers, which as Olympios has demonstrated with her Team Corn clothing line, means more money. Today’s reality-TV stars face a totally different calculus than those of yesteryear; while it was laughable that reality stars in the genre’s early days could parlay their notoriety into an acting career, today’s reality fixtures are opening nightclubs and selling skinny margaritas for millions of dollars. As such, there are implied incentives available to cast members who are down to fool around.
In order to deliver the most interesting romantic relationships, story producers in preproduction play matchmaker. In initial interviews, producers ask cast members whom they’re attracted to, then base their soft-scripted story lines on mutual attractions. Once on set, they gently encourage paired cast members to drop their inhibitions and follow their instincts. This is pure speculation, but a producer might have told Olympios something like, “It would be great to see you and DeMario get to know one another,” while another producer might’ve told Jackson, “Corinne is into you, you should make a move.” Meanwhile, a third producer may have been overseeing the scene in the hot tub, and this producer, who knew nothing about previous conversations, was perhaps the one who blew the whistle on the alleged sexual misconduct.
The free flow of alcohol complicates the matter. The Bachelor shamelessly encourages its cast to get drunk in order to calm nerves and erase inhibitions, and Bachelor in Paradise, with its open bar and atmosphere of adult Spring Break, often functions as a fully documented drunken bender. But the same inebriation that helps romance blossom can also limit the possibility of consent, and this requires producers to walk a fine line, knowing full well that their jobs require them to bring home the goods.
Reality producers very rarely interrupt good scenes. You’re much more likely to be dragged across the coals by an executive asking why you called cut than by one asking why you didn’t step in. Mistakes can be edited out, but drama can’t be recreated. That’s likely why, per reports, the producer who complained about Olympios and Jackson’s encounter didn’t step in and stop it while it was happening. During filming, producers are hyperfocused on two questions: Is this good TV, and how can I make it better? Only after the fact do they consider what happened from a moral and legal perspective.
If ABC chooses to cancel its fourth season of Bachelor in Paradise, the network and studio will lose millions of dollars in sunk production costs and lost ad revenue, not to mention a PR nightmare that could end the spinoff entirely. This couldn’t come at a worse time for The Bachelor, the rare broadcast franchise that has seen its audience grow in recent years.
In my opinion, the Bachelor in Paradise producers didn’t just screw up when they allowed the alleged nonconsensual hook up to happen, they also broke the cardinal rule of reality-TV production afterward: When disaster strikes, you shoot the disaster. If Olympios has a sexual-assault claim against Jackson, or even the producers, it would be much more edifying and entertaining to see that legal case play out live, both in and out of Paradise, than to read about it online. Reality television, whatever its flaws, is capable of contributing to the national debate about consent and sexual assault, and Bachelor in Paradise, by suspending production, has missed out on an opportunity to participate in that discourse.