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(Reuters) - ABC has been sued for alleged racial discrimination for featuring only white people in the lead roles on its popular dating shows "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette."
Nathaniel Claybrooks and Christopher Johnson, a pair of African-Americans and football players who had tried out for "The Bachelor," said ABC has intentionally excluded non-whites from the shows during their 10-year run, comprising 16 seasons of "The Bachelor" and seven of "The Bachelorette."
The Nashville, Tennessee, residents claimed in the suit filed on Wednesday that ABC excludes non-whites solely because of the perceived risk that more diverse casting would alienate white viewers, which are a majority, as well as advertisers. They also said nearly all Bachelor or Bachelorette suitors have been white.
"Defendants are making the calculation that minorities in lead roles and interracial dating is unappealing to the shows' audiences," the complaint said. "'The Bachelor' and 'The Bachelorette' are examples of purposeful segregation in the media that perpetuates racial stereotypes and denies persons of color opportunities in the entertainment industry."
ABC is a unit of Walt Disney Co.. An ABC spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Other defendants include Michael Fleiss, the shows' producer, and several production companies.
The lawsuit filed in Nashville federal court seeks class-action status on behalf of non-whites who applied unsuccessfully to star on the two shows. It seeks an order directing ABC to consider non-whites for those roles, as well as punitive damages and other remedies.
A news conference was scheduled for later Wednesday.
Last year, when asked if the shows would feature non-whites, Fleiss was quoted as saying to Entertainment Weekly: "I think Ashley (the 2011 Bachelorette) is 1/16th Cherokee Indian, but I cannot confirm. But that is my suspicion! We really tried, but sometimes we feel guilty of tokenism. Oh, we have to wedge African-American chicks in there! We always want to cast for ethnic diversity, it's just that for whatever reason, they don't come forward. I wish they would."
"The Bachelor" made its debut on ABC in 2002. It features a single man who chooses a potential wife from a pool of about 20 women. That pool is narrowed after weekly dates. "The Bachelorette" began to air the following year.
The case is Claybrooks et al v. American Broadcasting Cos et al, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Tennessee, No. 12-00388.
Reporting By Jonathan Stempel in New York and Jill Serjeant in Los Angeles; editing by Mohammad Zargham