CBC Day 6 radio interview on reality TV suicides: irresponsible casting + unstable people + psy-ops conditions = powder keg

Today on CBC Radio, I spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about the suicide of Joseph Cerniglia, a participant on Gordon Ramsey’s Fox reality show, Kitchen Nightmares. [Listen to the interview at the link above, 17:38-24:05]

When the troubled restaurant owner was trying to prove himself on Ramsey’s show, taped in 2007, the vitriolic celebrity chef told him, “Your business is about to f**king swim down the Hudson.” Last week, his body was found in the Hudson, his death ruled a suicide.

If this was a scripted film, critics would say that connection was a bit too on-the-nose.

This marks the second Ramsey reality alum to take their own life. The first was Rachel Brown, who shot and killed herself in 2007 after appearing on Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen in 2006.

As I told Day 6, I do not blame producers or networks for these suicides–but I also do not consider them shocking, in the least. There should be some accountability from networks for the dangerous game they play when they actively seek to cast just the sort of personalities one would assume would be viewed as untenable for shows in which people live together in high-stress environments. And while not all reality show participants are unstable, even those who start off even-keeled often face taping conditions that are designed to break them down, including: sleep deprivation, limited food, ever-present alcohol, constant surveillance, isolation from the outside world, no communication with friends and family beyond sporadic recorded conversations–all of which have been used by intelligence agencies as elements of torture.

Most of us (including many women on dating shows) assume that background checks are done to ensure that reality show participants are “safe.” Outrageous, sure, but not dangerously unbalanced. Sadly, this is untrue. Networks often cast unstable people, relying on intentionally superficial, perfunctory background checks that are done to preserve the appearance of protection from legal liability, not done with the safety of participants in mind. Instead of screening contestants out for being irrational, violent or psychologically unhealthy, those qualities are often seen as building blocks of “good TV.” The more easily a person can be manipulated into outbursts, the better a candidate casting directors tend to consider them. As I document extensively in Reality Bites Back: [See book for citations]

Within the industry, it’s understood that producers seek out people they believe will behave in hypersensitive, bizarre, or stereotypical ways. Critical thinkers aren’t desirable; those prone to verbal outbursts, physical aggression, or addiction are. The more overly emotional or mentally unstable a cast member, the higher the potential for buzz-generating conflict, so casting directors keep key clichés in mind…

…Despite perfunctory background checks, reality TV men have often had violent histories, just like that first false prince, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire’s restraining-order-tainted Rick Rockwell, who (as mentioned in this book’s introduction) allegedly slapped, hit, and threw around a former girlfriend, threatened to kill her, vandalized her car, and broke into her home. In 2007, after America’s Most Smartest Model runner-up Andre Birleanu was arrested for harassment and sexual abuse charges, it was revealed that he had served several prison terms for assault, harassment, criminal contempt, criminal mischief, and trespassing before being cast on the VH1 show.

Did producers 51 Minds learn their lesson and employ more thorough screenings to keep dangerous criminals off future shows?6

Sadly, no.

Two years later, Ryan Jenkins—who had a prior assault conviction and had been charged with “battery constituting domestic violence” against model Jasmine Fiore—was a semifinalist on VH1’s

Megan Wants a Millionaire.

He and Fiore got married in Vegas after Megan sent him packing. Then, three days after Jenkins picked up his check for appearing on I Love Money, a previously filmed 51 Minds show, Fiore’s body was found mutilated and stuffed in a suitcase. Her fingers and teeth were yanked out; she could only be identified by the serial numbers on her breast implants. Jenkins was charged with Fiore’s murder; he killed himself before he could be convicted. The network blamed “clerical errors” for their failure to uncover his criminal history not just once, but twice.7

Though I didn’t get to discuss this in much depth on Day 6, it is important to understand reality producers’ casting and editorial priorities when asking what role reality television does or does not play in Cerniglia’s suicide,

and Brown’s before him. No–Gordon Ramsey and Fox did not make these troubled people end their lives. Nor did ITV Studios America, Optomen, and A. Smith & Co. Productions, the companies that brought us Kitchen Nightmares and Hell’s Kitchen. Still, it isn’t unreasonable to ask what role they played in tormenting these people, in making their lives worse. If they knew they were dousing the turf with gasoline, are they unimpeachable here simply because they didn’t strike the final match?

These suicides, like the many instances of violent crime among reality participants, raise an important question, one I don’t see enough people asking: what level of ethical responsibility do producers and networks have — beyond the appearance of legal liability — in playing with real people’s lives? When the industry regularly seeks out often-unstable people, puts them in situations that can resemble psy-ops, subjects them to humiliation and verbal abuse, and edits them into caricatures of themselves, we shouldn’t be shocked at these two suicides… we should be grateful that there haven’t been dozens

over the last decade.

Listen to the interview here. [Min. 17:38-24:05]

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