How Reality Shows Detect Ticking-Bomb Entrants Contestant
A clinical psychologist talks about the process of vetting wannabe competitors for signs of trouble
By Deborah Starr Seibel -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/10/2005 8:00:00 PM
The staying power of reality TV—and the constant demand for competitors from all walks of life—has created a critical category of television professionals: the experts who help vet potential contestants through a battery of physical, psychological and criminal- background checks. One such expert, clinical psychologist Suzanne Zachary, Ph.D., has done psychological profiling for more than 30 reality shows, including CBS' Big Brother, UPN's America's Next Top Model and NBC's Average Joe. “We're not there to judge them,” says Zachary. “I tell them: We're not perfect, and we don't expect you to be perfect. We're trying to get to know you in a very short period of time and put you into an appropriate situation so you will enjoy the experience.” She spoke to B&C's Deborah Starr Seibel about the occasionally imperfect science of identifying candidates who might embarrass or undermine a production.
How does the weeding-out process work?
It works in three parts. First, the candidates are given a four-page questionnaire about their medical and psychological history: any stresses in their life, job or family. We don't give out specifics because we don't want candidates to hide any part of their background. Then they're given a standardized psychological assessment. This is a series of written psychological tests, well-accepted tests used within the psychological industry. The tests would be scored and evaluated. And finally, they would have an interview with me that is private.
Are any of these take-home tests?
No, they are never taken at home. A lot of what we do is in hotels, in conference rooms. All the candidates are in the same room and are given the same test. They have an unlimited amount of time to do them, and there is no pressure to get them done. The candidates are monitored during the test. They are not allowed to use cellphones or talk to each other. It's a little like taking the SATs.
How long do the written tests take?
In general, the testing takes about three hours. The private interview takes approximately 30-45 minutes more.
What are you looking for in the interview?
We're looking for background information, use of medication for chronic physical conditions, any prior medical diagnosis, a history of significant psychological stress. I would ask them about recreational drug use. I would ask them about alcohol. I would ask them how they would describe their personality and what kinds of things bother them about other people. It's really a full background about how they function in the world and what they hope to gain from the experience.
Do you find that these potential contestants are truthful?
I would say that the greater number of candidates are reasonably truthful. You never know for sure because people do misrepresent themselves. And you will always get that person who will lie to you. It's inevitable.
If they're on medication, does that mean they're automatically disqualified?
No, depending on what type of medication and for what reason, they would not be automatically eliminated. But they would need to have a letter from their prescribing doctor allowing them to participate in the show.
What about drugs and alcohol?
A past use of marijuana or going out with friends on the weekends and drinking alcohol would not eliminate them.
Does anything automatically disqualify a potential contestant?
It's not my call to disqualify anyone. What I would do is take the information to the producers and say: These are the personality characteristics; this is information that you really need to know. The producers are the ones, with the network, who decide what to do. Sometimes I'm included in the final casting decisions and sometimes not. I'm not the one who says, over my dead body.
Is it ever based on gut feelings?
No. It is not based on intuition or gut feelings.
What percentage of potential contestants fail?
I would say approximately 20% of the people who are presented are not appropriate for one reason or another—usually for past or current emotional problems. And then there are the people who are eliminated because the producers feel they don't fit into the group they're trying to put together, but that's a different story. That's casting.
Are you on call during the entire production?
On most shows, I am. And I'll do an exit interview after the show is over or after someone is eliminated if it's a competition.
Is that done in person, too?
Sometimes. But I usually speak with them by telephone to see how they're holding up. I tell them a little about what they can expect: that people will recognize them after they see the show, that they won't be quite as anonymous. I give them some strategies to cope with that.
Are they upset after getting booted off a show?
A lot of people are not the least bit upset about being eliminated from a show. They'll say, I loved it, I had a fabulous time, I would do it again in a minute. In fact, that's most people.
What about after they go home? Are you available for what is known as “aftercare”?
There's not very much demand for it. I tell each and every person that they have someone in the production company that they can contact and that I am also available.
There have been maybe one or two people who experienced some depression or some concern after they went home from the show. But it always worked out fine. I don't think it had anything to do with the show. Maybe they just moved and are having adjustment problems moving to a new city. I honestly cannot say that I've ever had anyone who I thought was negatively affected by being on the show who contacted me and required any ongoing intervention.
So these reality shows aren't psychologically difficult?
For most people, it's been a positive or a neutral. I would not say that I personally have knowledge of people who have long-term negative effects from having participated.
Did you consult for NBC's The Contender (the show where one contestant committed suicide well after the show finished taping)?
I didn't work on that show. But my experience with the production companies and the networks is that aftercare is always made available. Always. On every show that I've worked on—and that's somewhere between 30 and 35 shows.
Is there a personality type drawn to reality programs?
You get all kinds. But usually, they are outgoing, energetic and quite adventuresome.
Do these contestants really know what they're getting themselves into?
I think it's like most things in life: Until you've experienced it, you really have a hard time knowing exactly what it is. And some shows are more stressful than others. I think Big Brother, for example, would be very difficult. But as we've seen, some people have enormous tolerance.
Has consulting for these shows boosted your private practice?
[Laughs] Not one person has said they wanted to come and go into counseling.
Have any of the producers asked for your help?
[Laughs] No, not in any ongoing way.
How in the heck did Rachel or Brendon get past your psych evaluation? I'm no shrink, but can see there are serious mental issues in both of them. Brendon being the passive aggressive controlling fiance, who is quick to anger. Rachel being the emotionally unstable one, who acts like she is either manic or bi-polar. Both of these individuals need to be removed from the show as soon as possible.
Melanie - 8/5/2011 6:07:40 PM EDT
I am very concerned about Rachel and Brendon on Big Brother 13. These two have a very abusive relationship and neither one of them are emotionally stable people. They need to go home and get psychological help. Big Brother and CBS have allowed them to be on this show for two seasons. Brendon is very emotionally, verbally and physically abusive to Rachel. He constantly berates her and holds her down or corners her and won't allow her to leave a room while he humiliates, criticizes and verbally/emotionally abuses her. Doctor, you need to step in and persuade CBS to get them off the air, get them home and get them psychiatric care asap! It makes me so angry that Rachel is being victimized for ratings and Brendon is allowed to come off as some kind of knight in shining armor to the public when he is nothing but a bully and abusive, hurtful, controlling, mean man. Rachel is not stable emotionally and needs help! I've written Big Brother about this because I see a major tragedy coming out of this relationship and Big Brother producers should be help accountable when it occurs.Doctor you're the only one who has the power to end this travesty and save these people!!! Please do the right thing and advise CBS to find a way to get them out of that house before it's too late. Thank You!
Sunny - 8/5/2011 4:12:55 PM EDT
Steve Chaney - 8/5/2011 12:22:27 PM EDT
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