Last week sexual misconduct allegations surfaced regarding the ABC spinoff franchise “Bachelor in Paradise.” The show was filming its fourth season in Mexico this month, but has since suspended production indefinitely. Later, reports surfaced that Warner Bros. had launched an internal investigation into “allegations of misconduct” on set.
A producer witnessed cast members Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson getting “extremely sexual in a swimming pool.” Questions arose whether Olympios was too drunk to give consent to the sexual encounter. The producer who reported the incident wasn’t present during filming and had seen everything only secondhand. Both parties have released strongly-worded statements regarding the incident. Jackson asserted these were “false claims” and character assassination while Olympios told People: “I am a victim.”
However, the incident does allow for an opportunity to learn of how sexual encounters are constructed on reality TV. James Callenberger is a producer who has worked on shows for MTV, VH1, National Geographic, and Fox. Callenberger, though, is a pseudonym who recently shared on Vulture how sex can be orchestrated on shows like Bachelor in Paradise. It all is eerily familiar to the manipulations depicted on Lifetime’s unREAL, a behind-the-scene fictional drama at a Bachelor-like show.
As Callenberger wrote, “Producing reality TV isn’t for the faint of heart.” Here’s what else he had to say.
On establishing boundaries and following those rules:
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.
On producers “setting up” romances before the show:
[O]n 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.
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On producers playing matchmakers:
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.
On why producers didn’t stop the alleged assault:
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.
On Bachelor in Paradise’s other mistake:
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.