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Busting “Bachelor” & “Bachelorette” Bigotry: I investgate ABC’s race discrimination lawsuit for The Daily Beast & HLN

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

May 25th, 2012

Ten years, 24 seasons, *0* stars of color… and one racial discrimination lawsuit that, if it moves forward, could potentially transform the entertainment industry.

On Monday, I reported on the class action civil rights suit filed against ABC and the producers of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette for The Daily Beast, in what since been called “the most definitive piece on the subject.” Highlights from that piece below.

I discussed my report and the implications of this lawsuit, including why TV networks cannot legally discriminate in casting simply based on fears of viewer or advertiser preferences, with HLN’s Richelle Carey on Tuesday:

Go read the full Daily Beast piece, where you’ll find fascinating quotes from a former Bachelor staffer, a former Bachelor contestant, a high-level programming executive at a major broadcast network, a lawyer who specializes in both entertainment law and civil rights law, a TV critic, an author on interracial relationships, and more.

As just a tease, here are a few of my favorite highlights from the piece:

This suit is about contracts, not content. The case rests on the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the post–Civil War statute enacted to ensure freed slaves the ability to play active roles in commerce. The suit alleges that contracts have been denied to candidates of color for fear they’d negatively affect ratings and ad revenue, thereby violating Supreme Court rulings. “As a matter of law, defendants cannot justify their exclusion of racial minorities on the perceived racial biases of members of their television audience or their advertisers,” the complaint argues.

For a franchise whose casts resemble the segregated 1960s South, it is perhaps fitting that the class action is based on the same legal principles used to desegregate businesses during the modern civil-rights movement. “It’s a well-established area of the law. What’s new about it is it is being applied in the reality-TV setting,” Mehri said.

That’s why this case is “potentially groundbreaking,” said Berkeley professor and entertainment lawyer Russell Robinson. “Courts have consistently rejected customer-preference arguments. But because of issues of creative freedom, the entertainment industry operates untethered to the rules of antidiscrimination law,” he said. If it survives discovery to reveal internal emails, conversations, and casting call descriptions that include discriminatory remarks or assumptions about viewer and sponsor biases, Robinson said, “the lawsuit could change the industry in a significant way.”

How did The Bachelor/ette become so dominant? In an Entertainment Weekly interview cited in the lawsuit, creator Mike Fleiss said, “The romance space is ours” in part because “we cast more relatable people.” Asked if any of those stars would ever be nonwhite, Fleiss was dismissive: “I think Ashley [the seventh Bachelorette] is one 16th Cherokee Indian, but I cannot confirm. But that is my suspicion! We really tried, but sometimes we feel guilty of tokenism. Oh, we have to wedge African-American chicks in there!”

Indeed, producers are usually careful to “wedge in” at least one or two black, Latino, or Asian contestants among the initial 25 competitors. But they’re given comparatively little screen time and then disappear quickly—just like Lerone from the latest Bachelorette. It wasn’t until Season 6 that a black woman made it past the third episode. And in 23 seasons, only two people of color, both Latino, won the chance to become a Bachelor and Bachelorette’s future ex-fiancé.

Pressed by EW to explain his 0-in-23 record, the executive producer shifted the blame to applicants: “We always want to cast for ethnic diversity. It’s just that for whatever reason, they don’t come forward. I wish they would.”

“Nonsense. Frankly, that’s a dodge,” said St. Petersburg Times TV critic Eric Deggans, author of Race Baiter. Deggans described a “feedback loop” in which the continued invisibility of minority cast members deters people of color from applying, and probably also from watching. “The shows won’t get diverse on their own. They have to make active choices to make it happen,” he said.

According to the former Bachelor staffer, most male stars have been actively recruited, but men of color were overlooked. “In my experience on the show, there was a conversation among the staff like, ‘Does anyone know a guy with a good job? Let us know.’ The inside joke was that the whole show is Mike [Fleiss] trying to replicate himself with these alpha-male types,” he said. Calls to Fleiss and Next Entertainment were not returned. ABC and NZK declined to comment.

Fleiss’s former Bacheloremployee isn’t concerned with societal impact. “I realize this completely contradicts the FCC thing about being in service to the community, but I don’t think there’s any responsibility other than to entertain, and maximize profit for shareholders,” he said. But he does believe The Bachelor/ette is missing an economic opportunity. “They’re trying to second-guess their 18–49 female demographic. And then they’re stunned when Tyler Perry becomes a major force … Basketball Wives is the most-talked-about show in social media. Think Like a Man opened at $33 million.”

A high-level programming executive at a competing network disagrees. While it is “very important that our air be as diverse as possible in terms of gender, color, and sexual preference,” he said on condition of anonymity, “of all the franchises where this has to be handled sensitively [The Bachelor] is the one. Because there are a million landmines. The black Bachelor could eliminate all the women of color right away. Now who’s gonna be pissed? There’s so many problems.”

How many? Enough that he used the phrases “destroy the franchise” and “damage the franchise” seven times in one interview. “Let’s say ABC or Mike Fleiss says, ‘OK, you’re right. We’re wrong.’ And let’s say they cast an African-American male as The Bachelor, and half the women are white and half are African-American or other women of color. You don’t think there are groups that will go batshit over that?” he said. “Then let’s say they do it, and let’s say the ratings plummet by 40 percent. Does Mike have the right to sue the people suing him and say, ‘You forced me to destroy the franchise?’”

“I’m glad it’s ABC and not us,” he said with a laugh. “Seriously, let them deal with it.”

…attorney Mehri, who is pushing for immediate policy shifts. He also claims “social justice” among the lawsuit’s goals. “Reality TV is part of the social fabric of the country,” he said, and his clients “are doing their small part to help America become more inclusive, more tolerant.” That’s a stretch for a series built on regressive gender politics, whose female contestants declare themselves great wife material because, for instance, “I would be a servant to him.” On The Bachelorette premiere, Emily described her five-year plan as “a minivan full of babies!”

There’s a limit to how much change can be expected from a franchise whose creator believes his shows are successful because “it’s a lot of fun to watch girls crying” and that audiences have to “like the guy and hate the girls.

Read more at The Daily Beast, and “like” and tweet the piece directly from the site. Show The Daily Beast that you’d like to see more substantive reporting on media issues in the future.

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