By Emma A. Jane
The Jeremy Kyle Show was axed from ITV after a contestant committed suicide following an appearance on the show. (ITV)
The suspected suicide of a UK man who failed a “love rat” lie detector test on television has once again raised the question of whether reality TV shows and the like provide psychologically-informed “aftercare” to participants.
On one hand, ethical scrutiny of such programs is welcome — especially given debates closer to home about the ethics/wholesale-absence-of-ethics evinced by programs such as Married At First Sight.
On the other hand, the notion of a reality television program providing compassionate “aftercare” to its human fodder seems on par with an abattoir offering humane debriefings to cattle after they have passed through its slicers and dicers.
You can speak as nicely as you like to a beef sausage but it’s still not going to say “moo” in quite the same way again.
The analogy is coarse and hyperbolic but the unpleasant truth about the reality television machine is that its primary goal is to turn a buck.
Regardless of what makers might say about harmless fun or leading people on journeys of self-discovery, the aim is to exploit the naivety, frailty and/or celebrity-obsessed egos of participants and the Roman Colosseum gene of audience members.
It’s as simple — and as brutal — as that.
An onscreen polygraph
The most recent scandal involves the death of Steve Dymond on May 9, a week after appearing on ITV’s The Jeremy Kyle Show (which has since been axed after running for 14 years and earning its host a $3.7 million-a-year contract).
Dymond failed a lie detector test in front of his partner, which implied he had been unfaithful, and the pair subsequently separated.
Sensational “death by reality television”-style headlines should obviously be taken with a large grain of sodium chloride given the radical unknowability of where correlation ends and causation begins in such tragedies.
But cases such as Dymond’s — alongside the popularity of cheap “gotcha” stunts such as those perpetrated by presenters like Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O — offer good reason for increased regulatory scrutiny.
Defenders of the genre will no doubt say that ordinary people who sign up for exploitative television programs know what they’re getting into.
Certainly you’d have to live in a box (as opposed to just watching one) to think that signing up for a fake marriage show or on-screen infidelity polygraph is likely to end well.
But — having previously worked for decades in the media — I have first-hand experience of the sorts of manipulative tricks used routinely in an effort to bolster sales and ratings regardless of the collateral damage.
Channel Nine’s Married At First Sight program is an example of constructed reality TV, like the Jeremy Kyle program. (Supplied: 9now)
A culture of exploitation
While working at one of Australia’s most respected newspapers, for instance, I was regularly sent out on “death knocks” which involved turning up uninvited at the front doors of grief-stricken people simply because one of their family members had had the misfortune to die in an interesting way.
“If they don’t want to do the interview, tell them that talking will help stop other people dying the same way,” we were instructed. “And if they let you have a photo, make sure you take the whole album so no other outlets can get hold of them.”
If you or anyone you know needs help:
Remembering it makes me want to spend a couple of days under one of those industrial-strength science showers to decontaminate.
The takeaway point is that even respected and respectable media professionals are top-shelf manipulators: we have ways of making you talk.
Also, when it comes to reality and even documentary television, it’s unlikely that regular citizens understand the degree to which such genres are manipulated to tell only the stories the makers want to tell.
Just as menus are not meals and maps are never 1:1 carbon copies of territories, media representations are only ever that — necessarily abstracted representations.
And the gap between what actually is and what we see on our screens gapes particularly widely in the increasingly dominant sub-genre of reality television known as “constructed” or “structured” reality.
Reality TV offered a cheap alternative to drama
The rise of this genre — which borrows story-telling techniques from soap opera and documentary — is attributed to a resurgence of audience demand for drama after a scaling back of scripted productions in the mid-1990s.
Constructed reality TV (for example, Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Married at First Sight) varies from those programs generally referred to as “unscripted” (for example, Masterchef and Big Brother) in that it involves shooting “real” people in managed situations and structured scenarios.
Kim Kardashian visited Armenia with her sister Khloe in 2015 for their show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians. (Reuters: Vahram Baghdasaryan)
Story producers generally plot what will be filmed after consulting with the “cast”, and subjects are then primed to discuss certain topics with an outcome in mind.
As disgruntled graduates of Married At First Sight told the media earlier this year, these outcomes may be achieved via a combination of isolation, alcohol, manipulation of participants’ social media accounts, heavy editing, scripting and what sounds very much like out-and-out bullying.
In the words of former participant Nasser Sultan: “You sit in the ‘pig pen’ for about three hours and then at about 5pm they get you to write down your decision — whether you want to stay or go.
“If you want to leave but the producers want you to stay, they take you into a private room and convince you that you need to stay. But if they want you to go, or if you don’t have a good storyline, then you’ll go.
“You get fed lines. It’s all scripted and all staged.”
Perhaps the time has come to ask whether we the people are able to give informed consent to not-at-all-like-reality television not just as participants but also as viewers.
Emma A. Jane is a writer and academic.