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As America continues to wake up to the reality of systemic racism every reality TV show is now facing a reckoning.

Can reality TV shows atone for their racist pasts? Here’s what we think

As America continues to wake up to the reality of systemic racism, producers and creative agencies are starting to respond. Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules  has recently fired racist cast members, while the Real Housewives has started to deal with their own racist cast. Ex-Survivor castmates have spoken up about being racially stereotyped by editors. COPS has also been cancelled. All of reality TV shows are now facing a reckoning. 

But reality TV is too real to be limited by “diversity”

Although reality TV shows have always pandered to the tokenization of underrepresented groups, it’s finally do or die time for the format. The argument is that unlike scripted TV, reality TV cannot simply re-write the plot and dialogue of characters, and because of this it’s bound by the erratic behaviour and whims of their cast. Since reality TV is cast driven, that is where diversity should be focused. 

Diversity on reality TV sells like sex, only for a hot minute

It is important for casting to truly reflect the diversity of our society. However, this dynamic is the result of catering to a certain viewership. Many reality TV shows have a whitewashed cast, peppered with the odd “exotic” candidate here and there, without actually changing the conversation. This likely is a result of the demographic producers and executives have traditionally been trying to reach. 

So who’s watching reality TV?

Although the Bachelor has only recently picked its first black bachelor, there’s an uncanny Trumpish nature to their viewers. Before the last presidential election, when the Bachelor viewers were polled as to who they wanted to see win, Trump was the unanimous answer. Since the Bachelor spent so much time developing and encouraging a certain type of audience to watch their show, this should come as no surprise.

With the Trumpette’s at the remote, reality TV is catering to its sponsors

Reality TV show contestants that aren’t white tend to get ignored or used as an excuse for the white cast to use lazy and distasteful humor. Reality TV shows get ratings from their diverse cast because it drums up racial drama without actually opening a discussion which could make viewers reconsider their opinions. Ironically, the producers may drop non-white cast members  because they don’t “speak” to the viewers.

Reality TV is a power play that’s been seen in other segments of society

This is a kind of soft power that’s used by rich and connected people. You can see it in country clubs with $50,000 fees, or neighborhoods with extremely high taxes. You won’t be told you’re not welcome, but you’ll decide for yourself you don’t belong there. Instead, what reality TV has done is nurtured a viewership which does not care about diversity. In the end, they’ll use the tired excuse there’s just “no money in it”.

Reality TV can change though

Some campaigns are already trying to change how decisions are made at the high levels of creative companies. The “Changing the Lens” campaign is encouraging creative companies to diversify their workforce at all levels. Once higher levels of the creative process represent the diversity of our society, they can work towards fostering a wider viewership while maintaining profitability. 

Reality TV needs to write more reality into the plot

Whether reality TV can change direction is a hard question to answer because it depends on many factors. Even if the characters are diversely cast & the executives are consciously developing a broader viewership, responsibility might once again fall on the writers. Although reality TV doesn’t have the kind of writers narrative TV has, there’s still a group of people that decided what the characters should be doing each day.

Instead of only writing in silly challenges, reality TV show writers can start to introduce thoughtful segments and challenges. Since its inception, reality TV has been trashy brain candy, but as we all strive to be more socially conscious there’s an argument to be made for reality TV to follow suit. If we could discuss important topics on reality TV, without it turning into a screaming fit, we might truly be making some progress in this world.

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