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Most reality series have contestants sign nondisclosure agreements that include million-dollar penalties if they reveal what happened on set. But interviews with two dozen former contestants — most of whose agreements expired after three years — from half a dozen reality series suggest that the programs routinely use isolation, sleeplessness and alcohol to encourage wild behavior.
During the 2006 season of the popular ABC dating show “The Bachelor,” the contestants waited in vans for several hours while the crew set up for a 12-hour “arrival” party where, two contestants said, there was little food but bottomless glasses of wine. When producers judged the proceedings too boring, they sent out a production assistant with a tray of shots.
“If you combine no sleep with alcohol and no food, emotions are going to run high and people are going to be acting crazy,” said Erica Rose, a contestant that year.
Things were not very different on “Project Runway,” a fashion-design competition shown first on Bravo and now on Lifetime Television. Diana Eng says she was so tired after multiple 18-hour days of shooting the program’s 2005-6 season that she was sometimes awoken by the camera crew standing over her.
“One morning they scared me so bad I jumped and screamed,” she said. “They said that wasn’t good, so I had to pretend to wake up again.”
Producers of reality shows say that participants know what they are getting into when they sign up for a show. Even if contestants have not watched previous seasons — and most have — detailed contracts specify that anything they do or say is fair game for broadcast.
Mike Fleiss, the creator of “The Bachelor,” and Arthur Smith, an executive producer of “Hell’s Kitchen,” declined to be interviewed for this article. Executives of ABC and Fox, which broadcast those series, also would not be interviewed.
Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, the principals of the company Magical Elves, which produced the first five seasons of “Project Runway,” said in a written statement that the show kept contestants isolated “to ensure fairness and prevent cheating,” as well as to prevent results from leaking.
“We always give contestants the best conditions we can,” the executives said. “Our budgets are less than half what a similar network show would have, and that means very long days for cast and crew, but our contestants are fed at least every six hours, and there are always snacks and water available.”
Others who have studied the genre, however, say that reality competitions often make participants emotionally and physically dependent on the producers.
“The bread and butter of reality television is to get people into a state where they are tired, stressed and emotionally vulnerable,” said Mark Andrejevic, an associate professor of communications studies at the University of Iowa and the author of “Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched.”
“That helps make them more amenable to the goals of the producers and more easily manipulated.”
Chloe Dao, the winner of the 2005-6 season of “Project Runway,” said that the filming would usually start at about 6 in the morning, “and we finished sewing every day around midnight.” The contestants then would tape the “confessionals,” in which they speak directly to the camera. “We would get to sleep at 1 to 3 a.m., and wake up again at 6 or 7.”
The lack of sleep affected their performance, Ms. Dao said. “That’s why every season when you get to the final challenge, we’re all terrible — because we’re exhausted.”
On “Hell’s Kitchen,” contestants said they were usually awakened at about 6 a.m. and then taken to the kitchen for a challenge. The losing team had to work on preparation for the night’s dinner from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dinner service often lasted until 11 p.m., when contestants had to clean the kitchen, then deliberate about who should be nominated for elimination. The lineup with Mr. Ramsay, at which one contestant would be sent home, and exit interviews and confessionals often lasted until after 2 a.m.
Elsie Ramos, a New Jersey secretary on the 2005 season of “Hell’s Kitchen,” said she spent roughly four weeks shooting episodes of the series, “and I don’t think I ever slept more than five hours a night.”
Anyone who has watched an episode of “Hell’s Kitchen” knows it does not look like a pleasant place to work. Gordon Ramsay tends to scream and curse, occasionally while shoving a plate of food into a contestant’s chest. During those periods of sleeplessness and stress, the participants are usually left without their familiar support systems: Phones, computers and periodicals are taken away before the start of taping.
On “Project Runway,” when contestants were allowed to make a rare phone call, it was monitored by a producer, contestants say. They were also not allowed to listen to music.
Jessica Cabo, from the 2005 “Hell’s Kitchen,” said even the production crew would not interact with contestants. “The only person I ever felt close to was the sound guy,” she said, “because he was sticking a microphone up my shirt every day.”
The intent, said the contestant Ms. Yemola, seemed to be “to make you feel your most insecure.” When she once tried to engage one of Mr. Ramsay’s assistants in conversation, Ms. Yemola said, a producer emerged from backstage and quietly dressed down the assistant.
Reality series regularly show contestants drinking to excess. “When we arrived, there was liquor in the refrigerator, before we even put food in,” said Zulema Griffin, from the 2005-6 “Project Runway.” “I felt like it was a passive-aggressive way of encouraging alcohol consumption.”
Contestants on all of the series acknowledged that the producers never forced them to drink. “The producers know that alcohol ignites emotions and you get better responses for TV,” said Jeanette Pawula, who was eliminated halfway through “The Bachelor: Rome” in 2006.
While contestants sign contracts with boilerplate warnings about physical dangers and emotional stress, Mr. Andrejevic, the Iowa professor, called it “disingenuous” for producers to suggest that contestants were adequately warned of the conditions they would face.
“Reality TV cast members are subject to totally unequal terms of negotiations,” he said. “They are essentially a disposable commodity, and if they don’t sign the contract there are hundreds of other people lining up for their spot.”
Far from being disgruntled, many contestants — particularly those on the skill-based series — say the experience has paid off. Ms. Yemola, who finished third in 2007, says she does not regret her “Hell’s Kitchen” experience, which has allowed her to occasionally host her own local cooking show in Pennsylvania and has led to her being hired to perform cooking demonstrations.
Andrew Bonito, another contestant from the 2005 “Hell’s Kitchen,” said being on the series “helped me grow professionally.”
“It definitely contributed to my success,” said Mr. Bonito, who is now a manager at a Manhattan restaurant, The Palm. “And I got an opportunity to be a part of popular culture.”
An article last Sunday about the treatment of contestants on reality television shows misstated, in some copies, the number of aspiring chefs in the first episode of “Hell’s Kitchen” on Fox. The show began with 16 contestants, not 12.
An article on Aug. 2 about the difficult conditions faced by reality show contestants referred incompletely to the union status of the performers. While amateur contestants like the ones mentioned in the article do not have union representation, celebrity contestants on shows like “Dancing With the Stars” and performances outside of the competition on shows like “American Idol” are covered by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.