Reality TV — Who's Vetting the Contestants?

Reality TV — Who's Vetting the Contestants?

Jasmine Fiore's murder has ignited a debate about background checks that some say are often too superficial.

Last month, Ryan Jenkins — a hunky multi-millionaire who appeared as a contestant on a VH1 dating reality show about a woman seeking out wealthy bachelors — was found dead in a hotel room in Canada. His death came mere days after he was charged with the murder of his ex-wife, model Jasmine Fiore.

 
The VH1 show, "Megan Wants a Millionaire," was quickly pulled from air and subsequently canceled. The production company that cast the show, 51 Minds, told TMZ they wouldn't have cast him if they'd "been given a full picture of his background." 
 
But inside the world of reality television, many say that as cut-price shows continue to proliferate, so do the tales of the damage they can do by contestants who, critics say, may often often superficially or hastily screened before being put on national television.
 
And the lax state of screening is sparking a debate among professionals who cast the shows.
 
"Producers should really impart to these folks that … things they've done in the past and the people they've had in their lives will be under the microscope," said Jenifer DeLoach, senior vice president of the background screening division at risk-assessment company Kroll, which checks out potential cast members for a number of reality television programs.
 
"The word on the street is that we're going to start doing double background checks now," said Jason Corwell, who was a cast member on the 1997 Boston season of "The Real World" and has since opened his own casting company, Cornwell Casting. He has cast contestants on shows like the CW's "Beauty and the Geek" and FX's "Black, White." (Read an interview with Cornwell here.)
 
"But my question about that is — where's that money going to come from? If it's coming out of my casting budget, that's a problem. As long as the network is willing to cover the extra check, that's fine."
 
If the Jasmine Fiore murder lit a fire under the debate, a number of less serious but still questionable casting choices have created problems this summer.
 

"'The Hills’ Made Me Bulimic," read a headline on the cover of US Weekly earlier this summer alongside a picture of Stephanie Pratt, one of the stars of the MTV show about impossibly beautiful and thin girls galavanting about Los Angeles.

 

Shortly after, "Bachelorette" Jillian Harris faced embarrassment after fiancé Ed Swiderski proposed on national television — and then, just weeks later, two girls claiming to be his girlfriends claimed he'd been swindling Harris throughout the competition.

 
Background checks for these sorts of shows — which can vary in price from $400 to $1,000 — are completed by outside companies after potential cast members fill out extensive questionnaires detailing all of the places they've lived and worked and the names they've gone by. Any gaps are investigated.
 
On the most basic level, only records accessible online are searched, but the type of records available online — criminal or civil — vary from county to state. To step things up a notch, representatives from the investigative companies are physically sent to all of the courts in locations where potential cast members have resided.
 
In the most thorough of background checks, those who have known the contestants are also interviewed personally.
 
"Most of the clients we deal with do all three levels, but some of the game shows have less risk so they do more simplified background checks," said Elaine Carey, senior vice president and national director of investigations for another risk-assessment company, Control Risks. "The shows where they put people together in one physical location or expect to have physical or sexual contact tend to do all those levels."
 
But there are some pieces of information that are nearly impossible to track down, Carey said. 
 
"Say the boyfriend hit the girlfriend and they take him down and arrest him but the wife refuses to press charges the next day. You'd never find that," she said. 
 
Participation in pornography also can be tricky to locate — performers often use stage names. Plus, it can get expensive to search through dozens of paid sites, Carey told TheWrap.
 
Sometimes things get missed because the company isn't given enough time or money to look into all issues.
 
In some court jurisdictions, only three court records can be retrieved per day, for instance. And if someone appears to be a potential risk, the company will go back to the network's lawyers and discuss the case.
 
"We'll say, ‘Here's what we're thinking. We haven't proved this yet, but does this bother you? Do you want us to chase this down further?'" Carey said. "Sometimes we tell them stuff and they go ahead and put people on because they use it for dramatic value. Sometimes if the group of contestants is a little more vanilla, you'll see the ratings drop and the next season we'll look at a new batch and say, ‘Ooh, they picked a wild bunch this time.'"
 
Every contestant is given a written personality test in mental health. But Jason Cornwell says in-person pysch tests — where a doctor comes in to interview potential candidates — only happen when the budget allows. Psych evaluations range from from $450 to $1,000 per person.
"The real question is: Have they broken the law? Half of the people around the world are crazy, and if that's the M.O. for the show, sure, it's fine — as long as they're not illegal or going to hurt somebody. Then sure."
 
The line for what behavior is or is not acceptable can often be murky.
"If someone comes back with an STD or you find someone who has had a DUI or any type of drug situation, that wouldn't automatically disqualify them — depending on how long ago it was," said Evan Majors, who has found cast members for shows like "The Real World" and "The Bad Girls Club."
It's an imperfect process, admitted one veteran network reality executive.
"Producers try to get people who are emotionally all over the place, so they need to be extra careful. But generally people have been checked out far better than people living in your apartment," he told TheWrap. "It's never a perfect process."
Cornwell, who was just a twentysomething helping to counsel troubled teens in Boulder, Colorado, before he was cast on "The Real World," knows first hand the effects that being in front of the cameras can have.
 
"I would be on the train by myself, wanting to go do some thrift store shopping. But it's not just me going on the train. It's me with the cameraman and the lights and the sound guy and the director and the production assistant all focused on me but not talking to you," he said.
 
"I didn't realize that I was more of a private person than I thought I was. It can be hard for people who can't handle it."

But it's that very voyeuristic experience that has come to serve as the modern-day version of the Roman Coliseum — a spectacle at which viewers can cheer on success and failure, believes Jonathan Reiner, the supervising story producer on VH1's "Fantasia," about the former "American Idol" winner.

"Honestly, I think viewers watch reality to see people with flaws — e.g. Emmy-winning ‘Intervention,'" Reiner wrote in an e-mail. "They're the new soap [opera] characters — people who come into our living rooms and bare their souls. It's expected that they're imperfect. That is, until someone loses an eye — or their life."
 
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