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It’s Time To Rethink The Ethics Of Reality TV

Urmi Pandit

Channel 4’s documentary Jeremy Kyle Show: Death on Daytime analyzed the consequences of one of the UK’s most popular reality TV shows – most recently, the suicide of Steve Dymond in May 2019. When a guest takes their life just a week after filming, for a show that repeatedly faced criticism over its unethical nature, we should be urged to investigate the roots of the issue, as clearly changes need to be made. There has long been controversy surrounding famous reality TV shows. Urmi Pandit explores the morality behind some of the most notorious ones.

Afrer running for 17 seasons, The Jeremy Kyle Show was finally canceled in 2019. Some argued at the time that this was long overdue, as the show had been considered by many as an exploitation of the vulnerable people who appeared on it, dramatising their problems. The whole premise of the show certainly appears flawed if we compare its advertisement as a tabloid show to help resolve personal issues to its reality; YouTube is full of clips of Kyle instead shouting at, insulting and laughing in the faces of his guests in front of a heckling studio audience.

Reality TV shows seem to purposefully manipulate their participants’ behavior, provoking them to react in a way that would ensure good ratings

A judge once described Jeremy Kyle’s show as “human bear-baiting”. In the same way, many reality TV shows seem to purposefully manipulate their participants’ behavior, provoking them to react in a way that would ensure good ratings. The questionable ethics of this is clear, leading us to ask why production teams feel they need to twist or exaggerate the truth to make a show ‘better’. As well as the effect on the victims themselves, surely this encourages falsity and could cause audiences to become misinformed, if they take everything they see on TV at face value?

Perhaps the key issue here is that reality TV shows are too focused on their viewers’ entertainment to remain ethical. Essentially, would they be as popular if it weren’t for the fights, drama and comedy that people supposedly want to see? You might instinctively think “no”, with which the writers and producers clearly seem to agree, but this then means we have to question what this says about modern audiences and whether that is a valid reason not to demand change.

These people are set up to be laughed at

I remember watching The X Factor as a child and being confused as to why certain contestants, like Wagner in 2010, were allowed to progress so far into the competition despite an absence of significant singing ability (isn’t that the whole point?). I also have some shocking memories of the judges’ cruel comments, for example when the notoriously rude Simon Cowell compared a three-person girl group to “before, during and after Weight Watchers”. It’s clearer to me now that things like this are intentional, as well as highly unethical, since these people are set up to be laughed at.

Think of the way that whenever we see physical fights on reality TV shows, it means that the camera crew probably instigated them. Even if they didn’t, it is clear that they still stood by and just filmed them instead of intervening or helping those involved. A clip with 351,556 views from an episode of Real Housewives of Potomac shows contestants Monique and Candiace being recorded as their heated disagreement leads to a physical altercation. Again, we must question what this shows the general public about appropriate behavior and dealing with conflict – should TV production companies hold more accountability for the conduct that they promote?

Receiving a wave of hate over social media has become normalized for those who appear on the UK’s biggest reality TV shows; anything they say and do, if not just their appearance, is scrutinized by strangers online. The severity of this has led to the tragic suicides of several people associated with Love Island in particular. Presenter Caroline Flack’s death di lei in 2020 instigated a debate about social media abuse due to the impact that online hate had on her mental health di lei.

When multiple suicides have been linked to various shows, the serious problem of how reality programs open their participants up to this level of hate is certainly exposed

Her suicide followed that of the show’s Mike Thalassitis a year prior, whose death also highlighted criticism over the lack of care from the producers over their contestants, especially those who are struggling with other things affecting their mental health. It is debated whether the fault here lies with reality TV or with social media itself and its use. However, when multiple suicides have been linked to various shows, the serious problem of how reality programs open their participants up to this level of hate is certainly exposed.

It is also vital to explore the harmful ideas and stereotypes perpetuated by reality TV shows themselves. Naked Attraction for example is a light-hearted watch, yet dangerous at its core. As a dating show where a person chooses their match from six nude contestants with their faces hidden until the end, the basic idea is that they get to pick particular attributes that fit their preferences. It could be argued that the show promotes body positivity and confidence in that it usually includes people of different races, heights and weights – viewers at home can be encouraged that their body is normal, and attractive.

It’s hard to ignore, however, how the premise is rooted in the flawed concept of deciding someone’s desirability based purely on their body rather than their personality. This means that despite a range of diversity in the choices, the contestant is still completely free to pick their exact body type di lei, while others are abruptly and rudely eliminated, and their bodies are openly commented on as they walk away. In one particular episode, I remember an older man who obviously preferred younger, more petite girls with minimal body hair, and it really didn’t sit right with me.

Many problematic racial stereotypes like the ‘sassy black woman’ are also repeatedly circulated in reality TV. These, along with negative classist stereotypes used to demonise the working class, prevalent in The Jeremy Kyle Showexacerbate the unethical nature of these programs.

When vulnerable people are placed in the public eye, it causes a natural violation of their privacy. Pageant shows like Toddlers and Tiaras have also come under fire for pitting impressionable young girls against each other under a spotlight, encouraging a superficial emphasis on appearance. The audience watches to judge, pick favorites and comment negatively on the contestants they don’t like, disregarding the fact that above all, they are just children.

If we continue to enjoy the drama and humiliation involved, we become complicit

So, ultimately, is it time to rethink these shows?

Evidently, there are fundamental issues with the production of reality TV shows; we have to consider that it probably can’t be ethical ‘entertainment’ if this is gained at someone else’s expense. As viewers, I think we share responsibility for how we feed into this culture, since if we continue to enjoy the drama and humiliation involved, we become complicit; ultimately these shows only continue due to consistent views.

It is time for these programs to be more closely regulated and monitored

Though the popularity of certain shows cannot be denied, it is time for these programs to be more closely regulated and monitored during production, to instead promote more empathy and support for the contestants involved. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with healthy competition, but it should be agreed that changes need to be made to the lack of morality within reality TV.

Urmi Pandit


Featured image courtesy of Nicolas J Leclercq via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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