With the reality of a bleak job market staring them in the face, the generation that grew up with "The Hills," "Laguna Beach," and "The Real World" is looking at reality shows as a shortcut to career success.
Recent college grads are inundating online reality casting communities like RealityWanted.com, a sort of Craigslist-meets-Facebook Web site that combines a database of reality casting calls and a social network through which members can make contacts in the industry and get advice from casting directors.
“They don’t know anything different. This is what they grew up seeing, so it’s not new to them or different,” Mark Yawitz, co-founder of RealityWanted.com, said of the 21-and-under set. “They’re kind of hard-wired into this.”
And slim chances don't discourage this applicant pool. No matter their odds, the process of applying for reality shows is apparently more compelling — though likely less effective — than attending a job fair or slowly building contacts in your field.
“This is a different version of going back to graduate school, because the job market is so tough,” says John Challenger of Challenger Gray & Christmas, an outplacement services firm, though he says the number of recent graduates who actually land a role on a reality program is likely small.
But 22-year-old Darrell Riggins says he sees more opportunities within the world of reality television than in the actual job market.
“If the economy was how it was a few years back I’d be finding a full-time job, but I have a degree in business finance, and finance sucks right now,” Riggins said.
“I think reality TV could really help me start a career, or at least help me figure out what to do with my life…. “I could be noticed by someone watching who wants to hire me, maybe someone at a television network needs a financial analyst — you never know what could happen.
“There are so many opportunities when you’re on TV. I really hope I make it!”
Christine Khoshabeh, a business and communications major at South Oregon University who aspires to be a TV news or sports anchor, speaks about applying for reality shows as if she were speaking about student government or internships — like any other marketable, resume-boosting extracurricular activity and just as important to her future career. She’s interned at a local news station and has posted her films on YouTube, but she says she hasn’t gotten enough exposure (her last online video “got only, like 50,000 hits,” she said.)
“I think that a lot of people my age want a job, a career — and a lot of teenagers have gotten their own reality shows — we see it as a way to jump start a career,” said Khoshabeh, 18, who is a member of RealityWanted.com. “I think it’s the get-rich-quick scheme for my generation.”
The scheme has its risks, though. How marketable reality TV experience will be for aspiring businessmen like Riggins largely depends on the show they appear on and what they do on it. The problem with millions of people watching is … that millions of people are watching. In a genre founded on gross-outs, humiliation and heavy-handed editing, a reality TV "star" can render himself unemployable.
“Two years ago I’d say, 'Don’t go near it. It’s a mistake, don’t do it,' but now there are so few jobs available,” said Michael King of Michael King Associates, a financial recruiting firm based in New York. “As long as you look like an intelligent idiot, not a total idiot, you don’t have a lot to lose. Maybe you’ll get somebody’s attention, though I wouldn’t count on it.”
Contestants rarely get noticed in a way that is life-changing unless they're competing in an actual talent show like American Idol, says Leyna Raskoff, a reality casting director with a decade of experience currently working FOX Reality’s “Solitary.”
“I think a lot of people are delusional that way, thinking ‘That’s all I need, to get on TV and I’ll be set,’” Raskoff said. “People want their 15 minutes, and 15 minutes is definitely not enough to make a lifetime.”
“And some people make really bad decisions and go on really silly shows, it’s going to make yourself look bad, you are going to make yourself look bad,” she said.
Workforce experts agree that there’s a risk of ruining future opportunities.
“Its kind of like an extended version of what you might do that might cause you harm on your MySpace and Facebook page: You don’t want to put up something, once you start moving on to career side of your life, that makes you look stupid,” Challenger said, warning that even audition tapes can wind up on YouTube.
Riggins says he knows he risks ending his business career before it even starts. “I don’t want to make a fool of myself, so I’m careful,” he said, before dishing all the dirt about a recent appearance on the "Tyra Banks Show" where he sat on a panel and discussed his favorite parts of the female anatomy: “I like boobs. And butts.”
He is currently in the next-to-last round of casting for a show vague in details and ostensibly billed as some kind of strength competition among men. “I just am hoping it’s not too crazy or embarrassing," he said. "Hopefully I won’t have to wear a dress. Or eat spiders.”
But Khoshabeh, who's in the running for a spot on the FOX hit “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” says she’d do whatever it takes — “even if it’s really really gross” — for the chance to be seen by all the right people. “Getting that exposure gives you a greater chance of attaining your dream job,” she said.
That appears to be the thinking of the 100,000 members on RealityWanted.com, where Yawitz said 250-300 people sign up every day. Another social networking site used by reality applicants and casting agents is GotCast.com, which also boasts of membership around 100,000, though it’s not just for reality TV; scripted gigs are also listed on the site.
Both sites offer different levels of membership; you can sign on for free but need to pay a membership fee in order to post multiple photos or videos and for the ability to reply to casting calls on the site the same day they come out. InstantCast is another.
But with the reality casting market flooded with recent college graduates, only a few will be able to parlay their 15 minutes of fame into a viable career.
“It’s the biggest the brightest the most interesting the working the hardest to get in front of the right people that succeed," said Justin Moodley of GotCast. "The cream rises to the top and only the best will be booked. It’s really parallel to what’s happening in the job market.
“Most of them just rock out with 15 minutes of fame and you never hear from them again, unless there’s a reunion show.”
And what if reality TV doesn’t work out?
Khoshabeh said, “I’d try to become a reporter — I’d probably have to start at a station in a small town and work my way up. I guess I’d just have to gain exposure the old fashioned way.”