The Bachelor at a crossroads: Will lawsuit force ABC to welcome minorities into its romantic fantasy?
For years, critics like me have been complaining about the lack of diversity on The Bachelor -- a reality show which wraps a bruising competition for women in a gauzy fantasy of romance.
Since the show was established in 2002, there has never been a person of color in the power position; allowed to be the person who picks a mate, either on The Bachelor or its female-centered spin-off, the Bachelorette.
There have been only two non-white people picked as "winners" on both shows; Mary Delgado, a native of Cuba living in Tampa, was selected by Bachelor Byron Velvick in 2004; Roberto Martinez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, won Bachelorette Ali Fedotowsky’s heart in 2010. Both couples have since broken up. (Curiously, both Delgado and Martinez, who played for University of Tampa's baseball team, have ties to the Tampa Bay area)
But it took a lawsuit from two African American men in Nashville to really put the issue of the bachelor's lack of diversity on the table.
Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson filed a federal lawsuit against the show's creator, Mike Fleiss, ABC and the various production companies which own and produce the series.
Both men say they tried out for the show in August 2011 and were not given the same consideration as white applicants.
"I only wanted a fair shot at the part," said Claybrooks, 39, according to the Associated Press. "Looking back at how I was treated at the casting call last year, it was clear that that wasn't possible. I never even had a chance."
The person who may benefit most from this is African American sportscaster Lamar Hurd, who has been trying to land a spot on The Bachelor and reportedly met with the network earlier this month.
Those of us who have written about The Bachelor for years, know that the show sells a fantasy. And very few people of color have been allowed to be part of that fantasy, especially dark-skinned people.
Casting a black Bachelor or Bachelorette would be a gamble for the show, which hinges the success of an entire cycle on whether viewers are engaged by the lead person's interaction with their suitors. And because so many Bachelorettes are cast after they perform well on The Bachelor, both shows have created a self-reinforcing cycle where people of color -- especially black and Asian people -- have a difficult time reaching the top spots.
It's been my experience that TV executives are pretty cynical about how TV audiences react to race. And the last thing ABC wants is a cycle of the Bachelor, topped by a minority male, where audiences watch less and less, providing an embarrassing display and hobbling a key franchise.
Casting a Bachelor of color would also raise a host of questions about casting the women who would woo him. If they are mostly minority women, would the show's largely white viewership feel excluded? If they are not, will people of color get angry at seeing the show encourage him to date outside his race?
I have already written about how skittish network TV types can be in featuring interracial couples; mostly race differences just aren't mentioned. But it would be tough to avoid that kind of talk when the bachelor or bachelorette is a person of color.
This lawsuit raises an important question for reality TV shows and casting in general: Can producers, deliberately or unconsciously create a situation where their shows perpetually exclude people of color from the biggest roles?
I wrote about the franchise's lack of diversity about two years ago, quoting media critic Jennifer Pozner saying she suspects it's a reaction to the show's advertisers.
Last year, Fleiss told Entertainment Weekly that the show has to "wedge African American chicks in there" and doesn't have more diversity because people of color don't apply for the show. But given how often reality TV shows recruit people for casts -- Tampa's Monica Culpepper wound up on Survivor because producers originally called her husband, former NFL player Brad Culpepper -- that seems a thin explanation.
(Even Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield, found that explanation dubious, calling it "straight up racism" on his Twitter feed.)
I asked host Chris Harrison during a teleconference earlier this year about why the show hasn't had a non-white Bachelor or Bachelorette, and he wasn't very insightful:
Deggans: I'm African-American myself. And I have really been hoping to see a Bachelor or a Bachelorette where see a person of color doing the picking. Could that ever happen?
Chris Harrison: Absolutely.
And why hasn't it happened?
Chris Harrison: I mean, honestly, it's well above my pay grade. I don't do that. Yes, they ask my opinion once we get going of what I think and all that. But no, I think it would be fantastic. I think that, could it happen sure? Should it? Sure. And if we find the right guy, find the right girl, absolutely.
You have any sense of why it hasn't happened yet?
Chris Harrison: I don't, no.
Hope the show's producers have better answers in court.