Perils of embracing reality TV shows

The death of a participant has caused the cancellation of the wildly popular ‘Jeremy Kyle Show’ and triggered a debate on the state of reality TV in U.K.

On May 10, The Jeremy Kyle Show — a day-time reality show watched by over a million people a day in the U.K. — was broadcast for what no one knew at the time would be its last episode. It began with a section titled “My nightmare neighbour’s not a lesbian but she tried to kiss me,” featuring a young woman and her two neighbours who engaged in an on-stage screaming match in which accusations and counter-accusations were thrown around wildly.

The host egged the participants on, threw exasperated looks to the audience and at one point even rolled on the floor in apparent despair. While the segment was initially pitched as a ‘nasty-neighbour-vs-clean-living-couple’ story, none of the participants came off better. They were booed, jeered at and tutted by the audience, till they were sent off stage and told to “get a life”. The show then switched to a different mode as it turned to cases involving lie-detector tests and DNA results.

The show, on air for 14 years, has been facing criticism for a long time. In 2007, a district judge, presiding over a case in which a man was attacked during the show, slammed it as a form “human bear-baiting”. A 2008 Observer newspaper exposé by well-known investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr highlighted the vulnerability of participants, the apparently deceptive tactics used to get people on the show and the minimal aftercare they received. In 2014, the media regulator Ofcom found the programme to be in breach of its duties for failing to inform viewers about the aftercare for participants, after a member of the public complained about the distress of a 17-year-old participant.

Little change in format

While the show made changes to address some concerns, its approach and format changed little. It remained a permanent fixture until being cancelled last week after the death (apparently a suicide) of a man who had taken part in a yet-to-be-aired episode.

Since then, attacks have come thick and fast. Prime Minister Theresa May described the death of the participant as “deeply concerning”, while former workers on the show voiced their concerns and reasons for leaving. One employee told The Daily Mirror that some of them had been told off for giving out to a caller the number of the Samaritans helpline for people in distress. A former participant told The Guardian that appearing on the show was the “worst thing” that had happened to him.

While the show has now been cancelled for good, the controversy has triggered a wider national debate. Britain has long embraced reality television shows, many of which involve some level of public humiliation and spectacle, with zeal. They include I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! in which supposed celebrities live in a jungle camp in very basic conditions (and do things such as eating a spider alive) and Love Island, in which young singles live under camera surveillance and attempt to be the last ‘couple’ standing.

And, of course, there are others such as The Apprentice — the U.K. version of the American programme once infamously hosted by Donald Trump — in which aspiring entrepreneurs and business people are subjected to humiliation and public contempt.

Now, a parliamentary committee — the same one that subjected Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to so much heat and questioning — is set to examine the state of Britain’s reality TV programming and if the current regulation is fit for purpose. In particular, it will be looking at the aftercare provided to participants. “Programmes like The Jeremy Kyle Show risk putting people, who might be vulnerable, on to a public stage at a point in their lives when they are unable to foresee the consequences, either for themselves or their families,” said the committee’s chair Damian Collins.

However, such examination is unlikely to impact public appetite for such programming. Over 33,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the show be brought back.

“Jeremy Kyle has kept me motivated for nearly 15 years to be a better person and to fight for the truth and I am sure I am not the only one,” insisted the petition’s instigator Nikki Charters-Stephens, adding, “Keep Jeremy Kyle on TV.”

(Vidya Ram is The Hindu’s London correspondent)

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