NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Two black men are taking "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" to court with a lawsuit that claims the reality shows are blocking contestants of color from starring roles.
Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson filed a federal lawsuit in Nashville Wednesday against the popular TV shows claiming they are engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination that intentionally excludes people of color. The Nashville men said at a casting call in August that they were given scant consideration compared to white men seeking a leading role for "The Bachelor."
Claybrooks said white applicants were given far more time and consideration during the interview process.
"I only wanted a fair shot at the part," said the soft-spoken Claybrooks, a 39-year-old college graduate and electric company meter reader who owns several small businesses. "Looking back at how I was treated at the casting call last year, it was clear that that wasn't possible. I never even had a chance."
Their attorneys said it is the first racial discrimination lawsuit filed against a reality show. It does not ask for a specific dollar amount of damages, but it does propose to make major changes in how people are seen on TV.
The two men say that after 10 years and a combined total of 23 seasons of "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," neither show has featured a single person of color in a central role. The reality show features about 25 prospective brides competing for the heart of a single guy. The gender roles reverse in its sister show, "The Bachelorette."
Both shows have come under fire in recent years for not having enough diversity.
The lawsuit names Michael Fleiss, the creator of the shows, as well as ABC, Warner Horizon Television, Next Entertainment and NZK Productions. Calls and emails to Fleiss' publicist and an email to an ABC publicist were not immediately returned.
Warner Horizon Television released a statement late Wednesday evening saying the complaint is baseless and without merit.
"We have had various participants of color throughout the series' history, and the producers have been consistently – and publicly – vocal about seeking diverse candidates for both programs. As always, we continue to seek out participants of color for both `The Bachelor' and `The Bachelorette,'" the statement reads.
The lawsuit claims that white applicants are featured prominently because of a calculation that "minorities in lead roles and interracial dating in unappealing to the shows' audience."
"The refusal to hire minority applicants is a conscious attempt to minimize the risk of alienating their majority-white viewership and the advertisers targeting that viewership," the lawsuit says. "Nevertheless, such discrimination is impermissible under federal law."
Critics have said the shows do not have diverse leading men and women because a segment of Americans aren't ready to see interracial courting and romance on primetime television. Creator Fleiss has publicly said that the shows' producers have tried to be more inclusive, but for whatever reason, minorities aren't applying.
Johnson, a 26-year-old teacher who was just hired to coach high school football, said at a news conference that when he went to the casting call, he was stopped immediately by a show representative and asked what he was doing at the hotel where the men were applying for the lead role.
He said he was only given the opportunity to hand in some materials, even as white applicants appeared to be given further consideration at the hotel.
Both men said they have been fans of the show and that, unlike online dating, saw it as an opportunity to communicate with women face to face.
The lawsuit claims that the shows and the entertainment companies are violating a provision of the 1866 Civil Rights Act that bars businesses from refusing to contract with others because of their race and a California law that prohibits racial discrimination.
The two men are asking the federal court to order the companies to consider people of color as finalists for the leading role in the TV shows. They are also asking that the suit be certified class-action so others could join the litigation.
A Portland-based sportscaster, who is vying to be the first black bachelor, has reportedly been in talks with the show after he was the subject of a social media campaign.
Johnson said he thinks attitudes will change once the show gets a black man in the lead role.
"I equate it to black quarterbacking in the NFL," Johnson said. "When you give them an opportunity, they always come through."
Johnson himself said in the lawsuit that he aspires to be in the NFL and is trying out for teams. He said he was recruited by a number of Tennessee colleges to play wide receiver and chose to play at Tennessee State. Claybrooks played linebacker for Middle Tennessee State then for the Arena Football League and Nashville's semi-professional team, the Nashville Storm, from 2001 to 2011.