There's very little that hasn't happened on British reality TV in the past few years. Women have picked a partner based on their penises, people have been chased by a pack of wild dogs and celebrities have tried to make contact with the dead. Yet despite the diversity of formats, there's been much less diversity of talent. Of the traditional scripted reality shows, very few have more than one black cast member, and there has never been one with a majority BME cast.
The Only Way Is Essex regularly has well over one million views per episode, and is by far the most popular programme on ITVBe. Made in Chelsea, the other of the two reality titans, also has a terrible record on diversity. The two shows have had 177 main cast members between them; just six of those have been people of colour, and only three have been black. It's the same story for The Real Housewives of Cheshire, Ladies of London, Geordie Shore, Teen Mom UK and The Valley. Most of these shows have no permanent BME cast members, and those that do only have one, leaving them open to accusations of tokenism.
Fifty-five percent of London's populace are BME, and with the influx of affluent international rich kids – many of them of Nigerian descent – to the capital's upscale neighbourhoods, areas like Chelsea and Westminster are nowhere near as white as presented on Made In Chelsea. In Essex, 9.2 percent of residents are people of colour, but only 5.6 percent of the cast members on TOWIE have been minorities during the seven years the show has existed.
Rachael Wilson, managing director of The EW Group – a diversity consultancy firm that has worked with the BBC – agrees there's a problem, telling me on the phone, "The clue's in the title, isn't it? It's supposed to be a reality television programme, and it's not reflective of the geographical location where it's based. Essex is not white and homogenous and completely heterosexual. They're missing a trick to widen their audiences."
Even when there are black cast members, they're not always made to feel welcome. One of the few black cast members to have appeared on a British scripted-reality TV show was Made in Chelsea's Akin Solanke-Caulker. Akin, a former rugby player, was school friends with MIC regulars Alex Mytton and Josh "JP" Patterson and now has a sports management agency. He said that while he was happy to get on the show, he always felt a sense of otherness.
"I definitely wasn't stereotyped in any way, but there were cultural differences – like, I like different music to them and dress differently, but maybe that's just me in general," he says. "I just hoped a lot of young people – young black guys – could watch me on the TV and be like, 'That's the kind of guy I want to be like.' Or, 'I like the way he does his thing,' irrespective of the colour of my skin."
The lack of diversity in this genre of TV is particularly disappointing considering Asian and black minorities are some of the biggest consumers of reality TV, and are far more likely to watch ITVBe, home of The Only Way Is Essex, than other demographics.
"There was one stat around how authentic people of different sexual orientations felt their representation was on screen, and the results were overwhelmingly that people felt that, unless they were heterosexual, the way they were represented on screen was not authentic," says Rachael Wilson. "They did not see themselves represented properly. And that figure increases for people of colour. I don't think those groups do see themselves represented, not in an authentic way."
Actor David Oyelowo echoed this sentiment when he told an audience in London that black people's experience had been "expunged" from the version of Britain shown on screen.
"It's a common theme. If the casting directors and producers are white and heterosexual, their natural affinity for selection is going to be towards people that are more like them."
There can be little doubt that if there were more BME reality contestants, these BME-skewed audiences would appreciate it. So if it's not a commercial imperative preventing a black reality show being commissioned, then what could it be? One possibility is the lack of minorities behind the camera and at senior level, despite initiatives like Diamond, the industry-wide online monitoring and reporting system requiring all new TV productions to submit diversity data. Between 2006 and 2012, there was a 31 percent decline in BME workers in the UK TV field. Wilson reasoned that this is down to unconscious bias, saying, "It's a common theme. If the profile of casting directors and producers on these sorts of shows is white and heterosexual, their natural affinity for selection is going to be towards people that are more like them."
Change is slowly happening in 2017. Shows like Love Island – the most popular reality show of the year – are taking steps to be more inclusive. There were a total of six black or mixed race contestants throughout the duration of the summer show, even though it caught a lot of flack for its predominantly blonde cast.
Competition shows like the Great British Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing have a better track record of including BME participants, but shows which have a public vote face their own problems. Strictly came under fire this year as, once again, the first few people to get the boot after the phone vote were people of colour. Celebrities who are from a minority ethnic background are 71 percent more likely to be in the bottom two, and that rises to 83 percent if the celebrity is black and female. Melvin Odoom, a KISS FM DJ, and actress Chizzy Akudolu were two black contestants on the 2016 and 2017 series of Strictly, respectively. They were both voted out by the public in the first week. When Akudolu was voted off, Melvin tweeted her saying, "If anyone knows what you're going through it's me."
After appearing on The X-Factor, two contestants, Gifty and Hannah Barrett, spoke out about the racism they've experienced at the hands of some of the show's viewers. Hannah discussed the lack of representation of darker-skinned black women in the music industry and how that can have a detrimental effect on a young girl's confidence, telling BBC Newsbeat, "A lot of black girls feel the same. When you feel like that, your self-esteem goes low."
Reality TV is a genre full of cliche and fake drama, but just because the shows are about froth, doesn't mean they shouldn't be serious about diversity.