When it comes to “romance reality” television, you may think you’ve seen everything.
There are bachelors offering roses to beautiful women, and bachelorettes selecting Mr. Right from a field of hunks and average schmoes. There are ersatz millionaires lying about their worth, grown children choosing mates for their lonely fathers, and anxious parents strapping their kids’ suitors to lie detectors.
But there’s one thing America still hasn’t witnessed—an interracial couple locked in a happily-ever-after embrace.
Starting next month, UPN will present The Player, the first reality dating show with a cast of many colors. Set in Miami, the weekly show focuses on a white bachelorette and her two advice-giving girlfriends selecting a squeeze from a field of 13 men, eight of whom are either African American or Latino.
While the UPN show is groundbreaking in its ethnic array of eligible lovers, it is following what has become a whites-only tradition in the casting of its star. So far, no bachelor or bachelorette starring in a network dating program has been African American, Asian or Latino. And, until The Player came along, their would-be wives and husbands were still, for the most part, also white.
“Occasionally there’s a black face in the field of contestants, but they’re always eliminated in the first or second round,” said Amanda Hall, a doctoral student in communications at the University of Georgia who is writing a thesis on gender roles perpetuated by reality television.
Minority women vying for love tend to fare better than men, Hall said, noting that on TBS’s current Outback Jack, the dark-skinned beauty named Adrienne made it to the fifth episode before being booted. “And The Bachelor show with Bob Guiney had a Cuban American woman, her name was Mary, who made it to the final three,” she said. “But overall the shows have a very white look to them.”
Reality programs that focus on competition, group interaction or sheer talent, such as American Idol, Survivor and Fear Factor, routinely feature racially diverse casts. But in the heavy-petting, hot-tubbing realm of romance, people of color can be as rare as relationships that last.
It’s not because minorities aren’t auditioning for the shows, said Rosslynn Taylor Jordan, vice president of casting for Bruce Nash Entertainment, the creators of Meet My Folks, For Love or Money, and Who Wants to Marry My Dad?
“I personally make sure I get as much diversity into the pool of possible contestants as I can,” said Taylor Jordan, who also worked on Survivor, Average Joe and Fear Factor. She explained that her job was to provide a wide field of possible participants. But in the end, network executives determine who will get on the air.
“The American public is accustomed to seeing African Americans be successful in sports or entertainment, so on American Idol you aren’t doing anything out of the ordinary,” said Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema and Television.
“But when there is some connection to love or sexual attraction, the assumption is that mainstream America might not feel comfortable,” Boyd said. “If there was a potential of a black male being linked up with a white woman, you’re going up against a long history of America being uncomfortable with race mingling. I’m not saying that’s the truth, I’m saying that’s the assumption. The networks are very old-school in their thinking, very conservative.”
Never mind that in real life young adults regularly step across racial lines to find love, he said.
Attempts to discuss the shortage of minorities on romance shows with producers at Fox, ABC and NBC were unsuccessful (CBS and the WB do not have romance reality shows in their lineups).
“Those shows are in the past and I know the producers won’t be interested in discussing them,” said Todd Adair, Fox publicist, when asked about Joe Millionaire, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, and The Littlest Groom.
Susan Sewell of ABC referred questions about The Bachelor and The Bachelorette to the programs’ creators, Telepictures Productions. There, spokeswoman Amy Maloney said the casting “has been very well thought-out internally.”
“It’s not something we’ve commented on in the past,” she added. “Thank you for your interest.”
At NBC, a publicist said that although no reality-television executives were available to comment, “the network strives to have diversity as a part of our programming.”
Having worked in the reality genre since its inception, Taylor Jordan said she believed that when it comes to interracial relationships, the networks are playing it safe.
“How long did it take for a black woman to get onto Friends?” she asked. “They don’t want to offend anybody. They don’t want to alienate their audience.”
According to statistics from Nielsen Media Research, that audience is overwhelmingly white. For example, while an average 8.9 million white viewers tuned in to The Bachelorette last season, only 969,000 African Americans watched the program. Who Wants to Marry My Dad? has drawn 879,000 African American viewers, compared with 7.1 million whites.
“I think it’s mostly about advertising to a preferred segment of society,” said Dennis Broe, a professor of media arts at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus. “They’re playing to middle America. But if somebody were to take the chance, the ratings might go sky high.”
UPN is taking that chance, said Don Weiner, executive producer of The Player.
“There was one moment on the first day of filming that I turned to the person next to me and said, ‘I don’t know if America is ready for this,’ “ Weiner said. “I’d like to think that times have changed. We tried to find a cast that reflected the world as it exists today. People 21 to 30 don’t think about the color lines the way past generations did.”
And if such a show stirs controversy, so be it, Boyd said.
“I would think the controversy would make people watch,” he said. “Why not do it?”