Why CBS will keep bringing back contestants you hate

I basically laughed when, in the cast preview video for The Amazing Race‘s 24th season, host Phil Keoghan said that these returning cast members were “those teams you’ve grown to love.” He didn’t even add “and love to hate.” In fact, he said, “We continually hear from fans that they want their favorites back, and we listen to them.”

Really? I couldn’t believe that these people were favorites, and collective reaction seemed to validate that. Was Phil just reading bullshit marketing copy, or does he truly think that these teams are people’s “favorites”?

But the more I thought about it, the more what he was saying made sense. There are two simple and unsurprising reasons why CBS reality series, never mind networks and shows that have followed in its returnee path, will continue to bring back people we hate:

  1. Hate is still a reaction.
  2. Somebody else loves the person you hate.

That’s it.

First, the worst-case scenario for a network or producer is that viewers react with indifference to casting choices. Casting a couple like Rachel and Brendon is guaranteed to piss off the people who get pissed off by Rachel and Brendon, and that’s a response that generates conversation and even hate-watching. If no one tweeted about, wrote about, or, worse, watched a season that Rachel and Brendon were on, they’d likely not be invited back.

But while we may threaten to not watch, that rarely happens. Our love of the show may outweigh the annoyance with the contestant, or we might watch in hopes that we’ll see the person fail or fall. I’m certainly guilty of this, complaining about the repeated casting of, say, Russell Hantz, and then continuing to watch anyway, allowing his presence to fuel my reactions.

As to #2, after The Amazing Race cast was officially revealed yesterday, it was almost comical to see people who were angry and dismissive about one team–and then see someone else express love and adoration for that exact same team. No matter how much you might loathe one person, someone else probably loves them. Both of those reactions are acceptable because they’re not indifference (see #1). Phil was right: these are indeed teams people love (and, yes, that other people hate).

Returnees are here to stay, although thankfully both Survivor and The Amazing Race have given us a break from them occasionally. Bringing back the same cast members makes perfect sense from a risk-averse network’s perspective: besides saving money on the actual casting process, they start a season with characters who are already well-known. That allows viewers to be engaged with them immediately–and whether that engagement is positive or negative doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s engagement.

This is why The Challenge will outlast The Real World, and why The Bachelor recycles contestants season to season, never mind bringing people back for random appearances. That keeps the storylines going and keeps us tuning in, no matter how much we may protest.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.