‘Joe Millionaire’ not only one with secrets
Reality show contestants often have colorful pasts
By Stephen Battaglio
New York Daily News
Racy bondage photos of a woman from Joe Millionaire may have been shocking to newspaper readers and TV viewers last week — but not to Fox executives.
Indeed, Fox honchos, who knew about the shots, got a good chuckle out of the free publicity for their already hot show, which drew more than 20 million viewers last week.
But not every flap over a reality contestant’s past is welcome at the ratings-hungry networks. Fact is, since reality took off, there have been some doozies ranging from a threat of violence on Big Brother to a soft-porn past on Survivor.
‘‘I think most networks would rather not have that kind of controversy,’’ said one executive. ‘‘These programs are pushing the envelope as it is. Nobody wants to be pushing it harder.’’
Indeed, executives say they walk a fine line in seeking edgy reality contestants who will appeal to viewers.
At the same time, they can’t have people who are a danger to themselves or others. And programmers worry that controversy will scare advertisers.
‘‘It’s getting harder and harder,’’ said one executive. ‘‘So many of the people that pop the most on camera are not shy people and may have done something questionable in their background. The shy churchgoer is not going to get you a rating.’’
Having a colorful past is more acceptable on a show like Joe Millionaire, a one-time stunt where gold-digging contestants are set up with a phony millionaire, or Survivor, where controversy and confrontation are elements of the show.
For example, a career in soft-porn movies didn’t disqualify Brian Heidik, the last winner in CBS’ Survivor.
‘‘He displayed an interesting personality in the casting process and we thought he would be an intriguing part of the show,’’ a CBS executive said.
Still, Andrea Wong, who overseas reality programming at ABC, said she passed on an applicant for The Bachelor when nude photos of the woman popped up on the Web.
That kind of image doesn’t jibe with a show that tries to set up a romantic relationship.
‘‘It’s an environment where people are going to fall in love,’’ she said. ‘‘This is a fairy-tale show where the people in it have to be true to the brand.’’
Such photos would matter less for someone who wants to be on ABC’s upcoming reality series Are You Hot? where looks are the sole criteria. Going in, executives are more concerned about screening out applicants with felony offenses, psychological problems or communicable diseases. Nearly half the applicants for NBC’s relationship show Meet My Folks and a high percentage of those for ABC’s The Bachelor were rejected for carrying the genital herpes virus, network executives said.
But the screening isn’t always foolproof.
CBS didn’t know about the police record of a Hoboken bar bouncer who put a knife to the neck of a female contestant in the Big Brother house two summers ago.
While the incident caused a ratings spike for the show, network executives said they never would have let him on the program had they known about his past.
Reality TV appeared doomed from the start, when it was learned that Rick Rockwell, the bachelor from Fox’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, was the subject of a restraining order by a former girlfriend.
But character flaws make reality-show participants interesting to the audience.
‘‘We’re dealing with real people and not actors here,’’ a network executive said. ‘‘They’re not perfect.’’
[From the Dayton Daily News: 02.03.2003]