When the identities of the cast for season four of Celebrity Apprentice leaked out, there was a very familiar thread present in the list: Nearly every cast member has been on a reality show before. Some of them are only famous because they’ve appeared on reality shows (Richard Hatch, Nene Leakes), while others had achieved some level of fame in their careers before their reality TV stints (Marlee Matlin, Jose Canseco).
That such a diverse group of people has prior connections to reality TV is probably a good indication of reality television’s prevalence. After 10 years, unscripted programs have had a lot of cast members.
But there might be something else going on here. Perhaps it’s an indication we’ve run out of people willing to be on unscripted programs, or worse, it may be a sign of laziness.
If people are unwilling to appear on reality shows, whether they’re celebrities or regular people, that is indeed cause for concern. Are they worried about how they will be portrayed or treated during production, or just the stigma that comes from appearing on certain types of series? And how can we address that?
Beyond that, recycling contestants is an easy shortcut. Cast members know what to expect, so there’s less of a learning curve, and viewers already know them, so editors don’t have to do the same kind of character-building.
If the same people are repeatedly agreeing (or begging) to be cast, there are many good reasons to ask why that is, or to just reject them outright.
Casting director Lynne Spillman, best-known for casting The Amazing Race and Survivor, told me two years ago that many of the 12,000 or so applications Survivor gets each season are either repeats, fans of the show who keep applying, or people so desperate to be on TV they send generic applications that clearly indicate they wouldn’t be a good fit for that show.
To find more contestants, the CBS competition lowered its minimum age (to 18 from 21) and also actively recruits people. That process is time-consuming and more expensive, but has resulted in some fantastic characters, or people who otherwise wouldn’t have applied to be stranded on a beach somewhere battling for $1 million with strangers, never mind be on a reality TV show.
As Celebrity Apprentice has shown, sometimes people who’ve been on reality shows previously, such as Sharon Osbourne and Bret Michaels, can be compelling in a new context.
And Tony Danza may have hosted a season of The Contender, but on A&E’s awesome Teach, he’s revealed to viewers in a completely different way, thanks to the vulnerability and challenges that come with being a first-time teacher. Although there’s skepticism from the kids he’s teaching and others – which is actually included in the show – it doesn’t appear to be just a vehicle for additional attention.
As the genre matures, we may see familiar faces cast on unscripted shows, but we need to fight harder to make sure there are more Tony Danzas.
Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes realityblurred.com and writes TV criticism for MSNBC.com.