Conflict is a part of life, and it is intrinsic to reality television, from Pat and Bill Loud's 1973 on-camera decision to get a divorce on An American Family to The Real World's screaming matches in its 1992 inaugural. But this fall, aggression on reality TV has escalated.
There isn't one clear reason for the increase. Instead, a combination of factors contribute to what seems like new forms of surprising, even appalling behavior: emotional turmoil due to being filmed, pressure to win, stress from decisions producers make, laxer standards in casting, and even from reality itself (people just act crazy sometimes).
Here, for instance, is a pastry chef competing on Bravo's Top Chef Just Desserts: "Definitely going to hurt somebody and I'm going to get removed from the premises." At another point, after elbowing a female chef in the face while grabbing for ingredients, that chef, Morgan Wilson, said unapologetically, "If you go to the post and Shaq knocks you on your ass, you learn not to go to the post with Shaq." Earlier in the season, another contestant, Seth Caro, had a panic attack and was removed from the competition, on the episode after the one where he broke down and cried into a guest judge's arms, "The red hots are for my mommy."
On NBC's The Apprentice, the recession-impacted cast members seem more hostile toward each other than usual. "I'll drop you like a fucking sack of shit if you touch me again. I hate that motherfucker," candidate David Johnson said to a competitor. David, known as "the virus" to his team for his hostile actions, was fired that episode, but only because he made poor choices about a photo-shoot model's shirt.
CBS' Survivor introduced us to NaOnka Mixon, a PE teacher who constantly confronts her fellow competitors. Besides verbal rants, she was particularly hostile toward a female triathlete contestant who has an artificial leg. "Hopefully I'll push you so hard that damn leg will fly off," NaOnka told viewers in an interview shortly after actually getting into a physical confrontation with that woman. This season also featured Shannon Elkins, a man who went on a homophobic rant after trying to out a fellow competitor, which he later defended as not being homophobic by saying, "I was protecting my butthole."
And on MTV's recent New Orleans season of The Real World, two cast members independently targeted one another by placing personal objects in their genitalia: Ryan Leslie rubbed Preston Roberson-Charles' cigarettes in his ass, while Preston peed on Ryan's toothbrush, prompting Ryan to seek medical attention and call the police. That played out in the fourth episode; Ryan was asked to leave by his roommates in Episode 10, not quite the immediate response that other actions of violence have prompted on earlier seasons.
Real World co-creator and executive producer Jonathan Murray said in an interview with The Daily Beast that the Preston and Ryan situation was "prankish," and "silly," and "passive-aggressive stuff," and said what the cast members encounter on the show "are situations that young people run into whether they're living in a dorm situation or living in off-campus housing; the show reflects that."
Murray told me that producers stay out of their subjects' lives as much as possible. "We don't want to be the adults; we don't have to come in like mom and dad and solve everybody's problems. This show is about being in the real world and living with the consequences of your actions." If there is aggression, particularly physical aggression, Murray said producers "have the right to remove someone for really any reason, and certainly any kind of violence could prompt their removal." They're most concerned about behavior that's "so unmotivated or creates a danger to the people living with that person, or a danger to the person themselves. Otherwise we would prefer that the housemates deal with it." He emphasized that producers don't want to draw clear lines: "If someone gets in someone's face and keeps yelling, hit me hit me, and they hit 'em, well, did the person, in a way, push the person to hit them? You can't make black and white rules."
There's aggression in real life so there's aggression on The Real World. But a show's structure can also affect contestants. Nearly all competitive reality-show cast members are sleep-deprived, cut off from family and friends, and being tested like never before, and that makes their behavior more extreme for the cameras.
That's even true on Bravo's Emmy-winning Top Chef, the gold standard of talent-based competition series. "They're often working from early morning until late at night and then being judged and criticized about what they've done all day. I know that I wouldn't like that. You get sensitive after you've worked so hard all day," executive producer Dave Serwatka told me.
As a result, producers "are always very attentive to the emotional state of the contestants," he said. "There's a constant check in with all of the contestants in terms of how they're doing," Serwatka said, adding that "all the contestants on the show must feel safe, whether they're in their living space or in the kitchen. They're always attended to, there's always someone within a couple feet of the contestants pretty much all the time."
Like The Real World, "there are specific rules pertaining to physical contact with other chefs, [but] we don't really have that problem. There's some inadvertent bumping and stuff like that," he said.
Despite precautions, human behavior can surprise even those who use it to make television shows. The aggressive behavior from Seth on Top Chef Just Desserts, who alternately exploded at other chefs and broke down in tears, culminated in the show breaking the fourth wall to show him confronting a producer and then later being treated by paramedics for a panic attack. That wasn't something anyone anticipated. Seth openly discussed how his mother was sick at the time of production, and the stress of that was clearly affecting his behavior. So why cast him at all? "People have all kinds of things going on. Sometimes it's the loss of a loved one or an illness of a loved one," Serwatka said, citing a contestant who left the show in an earlier season because a parent was sick. "In this case, there was probably more going on than he maybe rightly realized before he decided to compete this year."
Besides Seth, whom Serwatka called "an aberration," he said there was "no way could we have anticipated some of the stuff that went on this year." Top Chef, which won the Emmy for best competitive reality show, has nearly always focused on its talented competitors and the drama that comes from their work, with a notable exception of bullying in Season 2.
The drama from the pastry chefs, however, has been ongoing, from Morgan's aggression to frequent crying by everyone. Serwatka attributes this to different things, including that unlike savory chefs, pastry chefs typically work alone or in small teams, not in a crowded kitchen like they must do on the show. In addition, producers decided to not let them use recipes. "Not having that certainly did make a lot them much more uncomfortable, maybe even more so than we actually anticipated, but in general they all responded really well," he said.
On top of the stress caused by being without the guidance critical to their work, Serwatka said producers "suspect that sugar plays a role … because they're tasting their stuff and they're eating sugar for 10 hours a day. … When we started to see a lot of tears—happy tears, sad tears, tears when they won—as lay people, we were like, 'That looks like a sugar low or sugar high,' but I can't really say for certain.'"
Each series has its own special circumstances, but then there's the near-universal connector of reality shows: stakes. "They're competing, they're competitive, they're passionate about what they do," Serwatka said of his cast. "Most of what you see is that, and there's nothing more. There's one unique case and the rest of it is well within the realm of very passionate people competing for money."
On Survivor, the stakes, $1 million, are what drive people to be even more aggressive socially and in challenges, which are often designed to permit physical contact. On ABC's The Bachelor and Bachelorette, being more verbally aggressive toward the other men or women can often mean eliminating the competition. On non-competition series, it can simply be an attempt to get more attention, from each other or from the cameras. It's this kind of aggression that's actually the most prevalent yet gets far less attention.
A study published this year in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media suggests that for all of its notable instances of physical aggression, "reality-television programs contained high levels of verbal and relational aggression, but almost no physical violence. Such 'meanness' is so frequent, that it is almost expected in reality programs." The study defined that as behavior that "involves direct harm to relationships or the social environment and includes gossiping, spreading rumors, social exclusion, and relational manipulation."
While the study only examined five reality shows, all of which were British except American Idol, one of its authors, Brigham Young University's Sarah Coyne, wrote in an email message that the U.S. version of The Apprentice, for example, "is just as bad (if not worse)" than the U.K. version, which they examined. She added that because "a lot is at stake in some of these shows ... a contestant might feel like it pays to be mean." Producers play up that conflict because "any type of aggression is dramatic, and shows are all about the ratings. They will do whatever it takes to attract attention. And a real murder on television probably wouldn't fly!"
In other words, reality TV includes, encourages, and hosts more aggression because it needs to compensate for what it will never have: the vivid imaginations of writers.