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'Big Brother,' 'Below Deck' show reality TV improves by handling scandals publicly

Luke Valentine was removed from CBS' Big Brother after using a racial slur in conversation.
Sonja Flemming
Luke Valentine was removed from CBS' Big Brother after using a racial slur in conversation.

One reason I've always been critical of most so-called "reality TV" shows, is because I think they too often lie to their viewers — hiding important context, papering over scandals and refusing to reveal the invisible, controlling influence of producers, while pretending to show authentic reactions on camera.

But a couple of recent situations have given me hope, showing that unscripted series can actually get better — more ethical, less damaging, more coherent and more entertainingwhen producers are forthcoming with their audiences, admitting when something terrible happened on their show and acting in the spotlight to make it right.

A racial slur brings consequences

CBS' Big Brother faced this challenge when one of their contestants, Luke Valentine, dropped the N-word casually in conversation with three other participants. "We were in the f---ing cheese room, n----," he said, before catching himself.

This matters because the show — a competition where people live for months together under constant camera observation, now in its 25th season — has long faced criticism for minimizing or avoiding the depiction of racist incidents involving white contestants.

Back in 2013, I reported on how CBS didn't act decisively when houseguest Aaryn Gries was the ringleader of a group of white contestants who used racial slurs and demeaning language to refer to gay and non-white contestants. For example, Gries told an Asian contestant to "shut up and go make some rice," also noting "she is the first Asian I know who doesn't do nails."

Other contestants that season also said terrible things about non-white and gay people, but despite a petition demanding Gries' removal, she didn't leave the game until she was voted out and her behavior was brought up during the program's live exit interview on CBS. Gries insisted she was not racist.

(In a statement back then, CBS said: "At times, the Houseguests reveal prejudices and other beliefs that we do not condone. We certainly find the statements made by several of the Houseguests on the live Internet feed to be offensive.")

There have been more racial issues in subsequent episodes: last year, contestant Kyle Carpenter was voted outafter admitting he had suggested non-white members might have an alliance without showing proof. Other past contestants, like season 22's Memphis Garrett and season 21 winner Jackson Michie, were also accused of racism or racially-insensitive speech.

A different reaction to racism this time

But Valentine's story ended differently. When Valentine dropped the slur, Jared Fields, the only Black male in the competition, was in the room. And while the other two competitors, who are white, looked visibly shocked, Fields joked about the moment, seemingly to avoid conflict.

This gets at how handling racism can be so fraught for non-white contestants on Big Brother. Historically, one of the pitfalls for contestants of color is acting in a way that can be labelled as irrational, particularly involving issues of race. Fields was in a tough spot – if he reacted, he could be marginalized as oversensitive, but by tolerating it, he set himself up to endure even more microaggressions in the future.

Fortunately for him, fans who watch the show's 24/7 online feed noticed the moment and began speaking out, urging the show to take action. Soon after, producers issued a statementsaying Valentine would be ejected from the show; he was called into a "diary room" where contestants talk directly with producers and never came out again.

CBS also broadcast Valentine's actions in an episode where the show's eviction vote results were announced live on the network broadcast, showing how the remaining contestants were called together and told he was removed from the game. (Valentine has since spoken outin an Instagram video, blaming his actions on sleep deprivation and lack of food, saying the show should have given him "a slap on the wrist" instead of ejecting him.)

CBS' decision might sound like a no-brainer. But it was the first time I'm aware of that a contestant on CBS' version of Big Brother has been ejected by producers for using a racial slur — and it's a marked improvement from past decisions.

CBS acts more responsibly on race

CBS changed its approach to dealing with race and racism on its unscripted shows after the arrival of president and CEO George Cheeks, who is Black, biracial and gay. Cheeks announced in 2020 that half the competitors on every unscripted competition show on the network would be non-white people; it was a change which came just months after I reported on a group of Black former contestants on Survivor who talked about how racism and being outnumbered made the competition tougher for people of color.

Their complaints echoed comments I've heard from many non-white contestants on shows like Survivor, Big Brother and the Bachelor. When people of color are outnumbered in a competition show, they have to navigate tribalism and racism in a way their white competitors don't. And it is easier for white competitors to unite against them, marginalize them and get them voted off.

In February, the University of Dayton announced a study of the 40 seasons on Survivor before CBS' diversity changes, noting "contestants who are women and Black, Indigenous and people of color are more likely to be voted out of their tribe first, and less likely to make it to the individual-competition stage of the game." Big Brother didn't notch its first Black winner until 2021, when a group of six Black players utilized a secret alliance called "The Cookout" to vote out everyone else first.

Other times when disclosing scandal helped reality TV

My colleague, Linda Holmes wrote an excellent essay on another situation where reality TV producers stepped up to handle a scandal publicly on the Bravo show Below Deck – stopping a potential drunken sexual assault by one male crew member against a drunken female colleague, firing that man and another woman who was found to have repeatedly touched a different man she was interested in without his consent.

Again, this stuff seems like a low bar. And the fact that some of us critics are celebrating unscripted shows for stopping assaults and acting against racial slurs, only shows how topsy-turvy values can be in the wild world of reality TV.

The original definition of modern day reality TV shows was simple: Average people placed in contrived situations to produce real emotions. Unfortunately, some of those situations also seem calibrated to exacerbate tribalism, sexism and racism in ways these shows have been slow to admit and slower to react to.

I would love to see even more transparency, including producers speaking openly about how they reach certain decisions and more unmoderated discussions among participants about the situations they endure. Already, attorneys representing unnamed people from unscripted shows on Bravo, E! and CNBC have asked to be releasedfrom non-disclosure agreements to further pursue allegations they were subjected to mistreatment on shows.

The experiences with Big Brother and Below Deck show that an unscripted program can be honest about its problems and retain both viewers and fans – as long as they handle the issue appropriately.

Here's hoping more shows get the message. Because both participants and viewers deserve to know the full reality behind whatever they are watching.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.