On Reality TV, Less Sleep Means More Drama Research shows that sleep deprivation makes people emotionally volatile and temperamental — a fact that hasn't escaped the notice of some reality TV producers, who deny contestants sleep in an effort to kick up televised drama.
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On Reality TV, Less Sleep Means More Drama

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On Reality TV, Less Sleep Means More Drama

On Reality TV, Less Sleep Means More Drama

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Stay close to your television or your TiVo, because tonight, millions of viewers find out whether Anya or Fatima or Whitney walks away with the title of "America's Next Top Model." Big news. And the winner may decide to celebrate with a nap. Former contestants reality TV shows say producers routinely deprive them of sleep in order to heighten the drama. Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: Former "Project Runway" contestant Jay McCarroll says it took him a few days to catch on.

Mr. JAY McCARROLL (Former Contestant, "Project Runway"): Well, they work you till, like, midnight or one. Before you know it, it's four days later, and you're like, wait, I've slept a total of 11 hours in the past week.

ROSE: McCarroll says he tried to take naps during filming, but the lack of sleep really came across on TV.

Mr. McCARROLL: Oh, my. I was having such trauma at the machines, and I was cursing at them.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Project Runway")

Mr. McCARROLL: You know, you're a fat (censored).

Unidentified Man #1: Jay.

Mr. McCARROLL: What?

Unidentified Man #1: It's cool. Just chill. (unintelligible)

ROSE: In the end, McCarroll endured three weeks of sleep deprivation, well enough to win the first season of "Project Runway." But he says some of the other contestants couldn't handle it.

Mr. McCARROLL: It makes people crazy. It puts people on edge. It makes them irritable, screaming.

ROSE: This is not so different from what actual sleep researchers observe in the lab. Mary Carskadon at Brown University says sleep-deprived people tend to be emotionally volatile.

Professor MARY CARSKADON (Brown University): So, you have the little girls on their sleepovers giggling themselves silly. But you also have people who have short tempers or who easily cry - I guess all things that do make for high drama.

ROSE: In other words, sleep deprivation makes for good TV. And apparently, "Project Runway" isn't the only reality show that's figured this out. Here's a clip from a recent episode of "Top Chef."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Top Chef")

Unidentified Man #2: Okay, so I just did a check in after the chefs have been cooking all night long. They're clearly exhausted, and think that's going to be a major factor.

Unidentified Man #3: I'm just so tired, that I can't even bring myself to stress about anything other than hold on to that cake for dear life, because if it smashes, I'm going to need therapy.

ROSE: "Top Chef" and "Project Runway" are produced by a company called Magical Elves, which did not respond to our requests for an interview. It looks like "America's Next Top Model" may also be depriving its cast members of their beauty rest. Former contestant Victoria Marshman told the blog IvyGate that sleep deprivation made the girls, quote, "physically ill and mentally insane."

Prof. CARSKADON: I don't want to say that it's unethical, but maybe it is.

ROSE: Sleep reseacher, Mary Carskadon.

Prof. CARSKADON: There's documentation that sleep deprivation has been used as torture in prisoner of war settings.

Mr. LINCOLN HIATT (Executive Producer, "Solitary"): I wouldn't call it torture. Sleep deprivation is a producer's ally on almost any show.

ROSE: Lincoln Hiatt is the executive producer of "Solitary" on the Fox Reality Channel. The premise is that nine guests are held in solitary confinement and subjected to the whims of an unseen, mechanical-sounding woman named Val.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Solitary")

VAL (Computer Voice/Host, "Solitary"): I find that depriving my guests of sleep makes them pliable. It helps me to discover their physical, mental and emotional limitations.

Mr. HIATT: These people come in wanting to be tested. And if a tool like sleep deprivation makes somebody more raw, you know, that's valid in that exploration of, you know, what are your personal limits.

ROSE: Lincoln Hiatt says contestants can leave the show any time they want. All they have to do is push the little red button that takes them out of the running for the $50,000 prize.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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