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Op-Ed

Viewers Don't Want to Watch Tragedy Exploited on Reality TV

Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson are returning for the reunion episode of "Bachelor in Paradise," but history shows bringing public scandals into reality TV after the fact never bodes well.

Mitchell Sunderland

Mitchell Sunderland

From left: ABC/Craig Sjodin, ABC/Mitch Haaseth

The Bachelor franchise has fallen out of paradise. Buzzfeed's Kate Aurthur reports that at least a million people have stopped watching The Bachelorette since Rachel Lindsay, the show's first black leading star, took up the mantle, and shooting for next month's Bachelor in Paradise has prompted repeated controversies since reports broke of alleged sexual misconduct between Corinne Olympios and DeMario Jackson. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and an internal investigation from ABC concluded that no misconduct occurred during filming, but what happened during filming remains a mystery.

Olympios and Jackson have since departed the series, but this week they both announced they would appear on the reunion episode—a decision that has sparked controversy and accusations that their return is a ploy to boost ratings.

But experts and history show that Bachelor in Paradise's reunion anticipation could actually impede the series' success, noting that as much as television tries to sell personal tragedy as entertainment, viewers' television appetite doesn't always equate to the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality that dominates their favorite tabloids and blogs.

"I know I'm watching, but I don't think all the peeps that were reading about drama on TMZ are tuning in," explains reality television veteran and scholar Spencer Pratt. As Pratt knows, reality shows depend on conflict. The Hills peaked, creatively and ratings-wise, when Lauren Conrad de-friended Pratt's then-girlfriend/now-wife Heidi Montag for spreading rumors of a sex tape.

Read more: The Undying Love Story of Heidi and Spencer Pratt

Audiences love to tune into friend drama, but despite networks' attempts to draw eyes with bigger, and sometimes criminal scandals, numbers show that fans stray away from tragedies that they have already read about. Add into the mix myriad thinkpieces and public figures noting it's immoral or distasteful to try and make entertainment out of things that are actually awful, and it's clear that it's one thing to read about a scandal—but it's another to watch.

Take, for example, Britney Spears's 2005 show chronicling her tumultuous relationship with Kevin Federline. Though stories about the couple dominated tabloid headlines, UPN's Britney and Kevin: Chaotic only attracted 3.7 million viewers (in comparison, 18.41 million viewed that season's premiere of Survivor). Chaotic was tragic, but unlike a Greek tragedy, it lacked much plot. The show lacked the humor of Jessica Simpson pondering whether tuna was fish or chicken on Newlyweds, and Spears's home video footage lacked the masterful editing of Bravo or Real World pioneers Bunim-Murray. While there was an audience for Spears's public meltdown (in 2008, Portfolio estimated that tabloids and other sales had created a $120 million "Britney Spears economy"), without tabloid or video editors, Chaotic was simultaneously boring and gross—too real. Its series finale only attracted 2.1 million people, and its second season never debuted.

In 2013, OWN chronicled Lindsay Lohan's journey to stay sober after leaving rehab. While Chaotic depicted a star in free fall, Lindsay was supposed to show a celebrity climbing back to stardom. When OWN previewed the series, along with a post-rehab interview, reporters predicted stellar ratings. "Getting her first post-rehab interview is considered a big scoop, while the series is arguably even bigger," pointed out Entertainment Weekly's James Hibberd. But only 693,000 Americans even turned to OWN for Lindsay's premiere in March 2014. Newsday summed up the ratings in two words: "Not good." Lohan spent much of the program holed up in hotels and getting yelled at by Oprah for skipping tapings. Instead of kickstarting a comeback, Lohan resorted to bad habits, which pop culture devotees had witnessed for years. Lindsay was boring, but also sad and cringe-inducing—the opposite of aspirational.

Even Keeping up with the Kardashians has suffered from plummeting ratings as the cast's lives get grimmer (an ex-husband falling into a coma after visiting a brothel, Kanye's breakdown and subsequent hospitalization, the disaster that is Rob Kardashian). When the show departed from focusing on the Kardashians' luxurious lifestyles and instead capitalized on Kim's experience of a traumatic robbery, teasing the episode with clips of her crying, only 1.59 million people watched, in comparison to the 10.5 million viewers who tuned in to watch Kim marry Kris Humphries.

These dips in viewership prove that people want to escape through television. If they do watch a tragedy, it must bring them comedy, a compelling narrative, or at least something they haven't read about online. For an exploitative reality show to succeed, it has to supply pleasure with its guilt.

Whether Bachelor in Paradise's media-feeding will translate to a television hit, we'll only know in August, but history makes the odds look poor.