fb-pixelReality television has always been fake. As former cast members reveal the ugly behind-the-scenes truth, can it survive? Skip to main content
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Sex, lies, and reality TV

As former contestants and cast members speak up and speak out, will the genre that’s always trafficked in fake drama be forced to get real?

Clockwise from top left, a still from Netflix's "Love Is Blind"; Teresa Giudice from Bravo's "The Real Housewives of New Jersey"; behind the scenes on Bravo's "Below Deck Mediterranean"; former "The Real Housewives of New York" cast member Bethenny Frankel.Netflix; Virginia Sherwood/Bravo; Albert Bonsfills Morell/NYT; Jamie McCarthy/Getty; Globe Staff Photo Illustration

In August 2022, Nick Thompson, then 37, had just begun unpacking his emotionally grueling filming experience on Netflix’s popular reality dating show “Love Is Blind” when he was served divorce papers.

TMZ leaked the news. Thompson lost his job in marketing after a slew of social media scrutiny brought him and, by extension, his employer, unwanted attention.

Touted as a social experiment where love-seeking singles prioritize emotional over physical connection, “Love Is Blind” has contestants communicate without meeting in person until their relationship progresses to an engagement. Thompson and his future ex-wife, Danielle Ruhl, got engaged and married on the show.

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Thompson had gone into the show in what he calls a “great place.” He had a successful career and a happy life. He had only been missing someone to share it with. Now he sat alone in his Chicago condo, wondering how it all had gone so terribly wrong.

The former reality TV cast member had become another casualty of the reality television machine, an industry that, according to critics, promotes unfair labor practices, fabricates reality, profits off its participants, and leaves some with considerable trauma.

“It’s not about a single show or network,” says Thompson. “It is an industry-wide lack of any type of ethical responsibility for the people they are building content from.”

In April, Thompson joined his former “Love Is Blind” castmate Jeremy Hartwell and Boston-based psychologist and couples therapist Isabelle Morley to launch the Unscripted Cast Advocacy Network Foundation (UCAN), a nonprofit that pairs mental health professionals and lawyers with former and current reality TV stars who seek psychiatric and legal support.

In July 2022, Hartwell, 38, a former director of strategic initiatives at a mortgage company, filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of “Love Is Blind” cast members against Netflix and Kinetic Content and Delirium TV, which produce the show, after his brief, traumatic stint as a cast member. (Netflix, Kinetic Content, and Delirium TV did not respond to requests for comment.)

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Hartwell’s lawsuit alleges that the show’s production companies violated labor laws by underpaying the cast; depriving them of food, water, and sleep; and cutting off their access to personal contacts and the outside world, all while providing them with copious amounts of alcohol. In a word, Hartwell says, the show’s working conditions were “inhumane.”

To date, UCAN’s founders say they have connected with nearly 200 current and former reality cast and crew members, many of whom have shared their own accounts of behind-the-scenes mistreatment.

Binding contracts and an imperative to shock

If viewers are unsympathetic toward disillusioned reality show participants on the grounds that they should have known what they signed up for, Thompson says that unless you’ve experienced the isolation of being on reality TV, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like. Life structures are removed, autonomy is lost, and contestants make “life-altering decisions in a pressure cooker environment,” he says. And there is a culture of silence because of nondisclosure agreements and restrictive contracts that preemptively quash whistle-blowing.

That may be starting to change.

In July, “Real Housewives of New York City” alum and entrepreneur Bethenny Frankel joined calls for reality TV cast unionization. The following month, celebrity attorneys Bryan Freedman and Mark Geragos alleged that NBCUniversal (NBCU), which produces the “Real Housewives” shows and Bravo’s extensive reality lineup, displayed “a pattern and practice of grotesque and depraved mistreatment” toward casts and crews. Freedman and Geragos sent a “litigation hold” letter instructing NBCU to preserve potential evidence, including internal communications and documents. The implication: Prepare thyselves for a lawsuit.

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In October, a butler who appeared briefly on a “Real Housewives” spinoff sued Bravo, alleging sexual assault by two castmates. The suit came in the same month as a Vanity Fair exposé chronicling exploitation on some “Real Housewives” shows. Various Housewives interviewed for the piece, including Frankel, alleged that the production undermined cast-member sobriety by showcasing problem drinking as a plot point, that it protected stars accused of on-set racism, and that it generally fueled volatile behavior by creating a kill-or-be-killed atmosphere among Housewives vying to keep their spots on the shows.

Claims of sexual abuse on reality shows have plagued the genre for nearly as long as it has existed. In 2003, a 22-year-old woman alleged that she was drugged and raped on the set of “Real World: San Diego.” (In July 2004, prosecutors dropped the case, citing insufficient evidence.) In 2017, production of the fourth season of “The Bachelor in Paradise” was abruptly shut down following a cast member’s claims that she had been assaulted. In August, producers reportedly stopped a drunken sexual assault in progress during filming of “Below Deck Down Under.”

Disturbing behind-the-scenes revelations like these are not, of course, the shock factor these productions are going for. It’s the blurring of real-life drama and manufactured confrontations that is the signature of reality television. Eden Sassoon, who appeared in Season 7 of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” says, “The storylines come from the powers that be. They cut and they paste. They snip and turn.”

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The lack of reality in reality TV may well be what draws viewers seeking escape. But, says Thompson, “We’re watching people’s lives be ruined on TV, and then we’re piling on [on social media] and normalizing bad behavior of production and cast members on a grand scale.”

Psychologist Morley echoes this. “Every viewer who watches abusive behavior being normalized and who sees drama being elevated over secure, healthy relationships is damaged as well.” For some viewers, bad behavior, repeated ad nauseam on the small screen, seeps into their own day-to-day interactions. And, Morley says, cruelty and violence on TV can trigger some viewers’ own memories of emotional and physical abuse.

Cheap shoots, big profits

Over the last three decades, reality TV has gone from voyeuristic fad to cultural staple and financial powerhouse for the producers who make it and the networks that present it. Recent tandem actor and writer strikes have reminded us that unscripted television also fills in the gaps in networks’ lineups. For its stars, it can mean fame or cancellation, depending on the final cut. At $100,000 to $500,000 per episode, it’s a bargain to make compared with scripted dramas, which can range from $2 million to more than $20 million per episode. And there are yet more profits to reap.

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Early last month, more than 25,000 Bravo reality TV super fans from around the country descended on Las Vegas for the third annual Bravocon, an extravaganza of corporate sponsorship, merch hawkers, and a chance to glimpse a current or former Bravo reality TV star.

The event brought in an estimated $14 million in ticket revenue alone.

But in the reality TV glut, it’s gotten more difficult to hook and surprise those tuning in. If Real Housewife of New Jersey Teresa Giudice shocked viewers by overturning a table on the show in 2009, an antic like that would hardly raise eyebrows today, when cast member assault has become a recurring plot device. And this is part of the problem: The wilder the on-screen antics, the more we watch, and the more wild antics they have to produce to keep us watching.

And with nearly half of US adults copping to tuning in, some, like the former “Love Is Blind” cast member Hartwell, would like to see viewers demand better.

“Viewers are not to blame,” he says, “but they are instrumental and critical to helping correct it.” Those of us watching can insist that shows be produced in an ethical manner and casts be provided with mental health support. UCAN also favors disclaimers that reveal to viewers when scenarios on the shows have been manufactured or re-created, as well as warning labels for sensitive content.

Reality TV has had an epic run entertaining us, but it’s become hard to ignore the way cooked-up reality serves up real victims for our consumption.

Gabriella Gage is a journalist in Somerville.