The Big Debate is a regular Badger feature which brings the spirit of competitive debating to the printed page. Two writers tackle a contentious topic, representing polarised views. They might not agree with what they write – on this page, they represent a viewpoint, not an individual. This week, they discuss whether some reality TV shows should be banned.
There are some reality TV shows that should definitely be banned if the ethical considerations at hand are not taken more seriously, as they have such detrimental effects on the people taking part. As a Psychology student myself, ethical concerns are something I have studied and have had to abide by.
Informed consent is something required for any study. Generally, in recent programmes such as ‘Love Island’ and ‘I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!’ this is followed; which may lead some to believe that the shows are ethical. However, when we consider the protection from harm participants are entitled to, the ethics of these shows become questionable. Sophie Gradon, Micheal Thalassitis and 38 other deaths linked to reality show stress are prime examples of the lack of protection from ‘consequences’ of participating in reality TV.
We can see this from active twitter and Facebook conversations that go on whilst the show is airing. Contestants often receive unrelenting abuse; this year, as well as others, has seen participants abused for their appearance.
Yewande, who participated in Love Island received comments that she was ‘too skinny’ and ‘too dark’. Whilst everybody is aware that the contestants each consent to participation, the question remains as to whether they are actually prepared to deal with or informed of the public scrutiny they subsequently receive. Contestants have not been adequately protected from harm.
The problematics of ‘protection from harm’ also applies to both humans and animals on ‘I’m A Celeb’. Dead animals are frequently used in eating trials and live animals are used in other trials. After watching this, many animal rights activists complained, as the trials cause unnecessary harm and distress to the animals.
The ‘Wild Welfare’ project was particularly involved in this debate, as they claimed that the producers were ‘failing to give proper consideration to animal welfare’. Animal welfare has improved in this year’s show and contestants are no longer required to eat live animals. Whilst this proves that the show is open to improvement, it potentially represents a wider problem in the media industry of animal cruelty for entertainment purposes.
However, I wouldn’t argue that all reality shows should be banned altogether. Partly, this is because there is such a huge range. Given this, it might be dangerous to categorise all reality shows as unethical. But some reality shows do have ethical issues and should be improved or banned.
I would also like to raise the issue of contestants being treated as commodities, as they compete to win money. For example, ‘Love Island’ contestants have the chance to win £25k.
Effectively, producers are treating their contestants like objects of profit – not people. In my opinion, this drives the attention away from wellbeing and towards potential profit. Do they even care about the participant’s mental health or is it all about the money? Whilst intentions might not be totally callous, it does put profit above welfare.
Whilst contestants are paid to take part, they often have little control over how the show portrays them. Both ‘Love Island’ and ‘I’m A Celeb’ condense 24 hours of footage into an hour-long episode each day where individuals can often be misrepresented. Ultimately, producers have a disproportionate amount of control and power over how they represent each participant to the public.
Jonny Michell, a contestant on ‘Love Island’ in 2017 claimed that contestants were pushed to behave in a certain way during recouplings, so that they would couple up with whoever the producer wanted them to.
This element of the show was particularly cruel this year as contestants had to choose who to keep and who to betray and send home. Producers orchestrate to create drama, to the emotional detriment of participants.
Producers are treating their contestants like objects of profit – not people
Personally, I believe these kind of reality shows should be banned but not immediately. There is no doubt that there are a multitude of ethical concerns surrounding reality TV and it is questionable whether consent ever justifies their existence.
Yes, contestants are being paid but they are not necessarily emotionally prepared to cope with the consequences or supported through this journey, I mean, can anyone ever be? Many shows have shown their ability to adapt and improve, which is promising, but how far can this go? Ultimately, these shows are more commonly than not, manipulative and inhumane.
Shows like Love Island seem to be snowballing in popularity. The show’s 2019 season averaged 3.3 million viewers per episode, according to the Radio Times, including ‘57% of 16-34 year olds’. The show has also spawned a winter edition, with ITV executives evidently confident in a similar viewership. With an influence as wide as this, scrutiny of the show and other similar reality TV programmes is both warranted and necessary.
The suicide of ex-contestant Mike Thalassitis thrust the debate on this topic into the public eye, and the conversations that began at that time informed ITV’s subsequent decision to axe a previous flagship, The Jeremy Kyle Show. So why wasn’t Love Island scrapped? Well, a cynic would point out that viewing figures for the dating show and its spin-offs trump those of The Jeremy Kyle Show by miles. But, to judge this issue properly it would be reductive to examine only the producers’ view of this debate.
At the heart of the question of banning these programmes is personal responsibility. I am wary of making the argument that contestants ‘know what they’re getting into’, as if that makes them deserving of the tirades of abuse they receive. Indeed, the fact that these people open themselves up to abuse, does not permit or sanction that abuse.
However, it is important to recognise the reality of contestants’ ambitions in the villa. The reason contestants apply for Love Island, as with other reality TV programmes, is to make a stab at entering the personality market for the TV industry, or to raise their social media presence to an ‘influential’ level, thereby getting lucrative brand deals and sponsorships. Relationships between Love Island contestants, no matter how genuine they may be during the show, rarely last more than a few months out of the villa. The show isn’t about love for anyone: the producers want viewers, viewers want drama, and contestants want to gain public approval and even adoration. This arrangement works well for popular contestants but becomes hellish for those who get on the wrong side of the public.
The scrutiny that some characters come under is catalysed and perpetuated by the cunning editing and the snide narration of the show. Which often makes toxic personal attacks in order to engage the viewers in a wider sense of solidarity by positioning against a particular character. Ultimately though, a dating show doesn’t demand the level of hostility that love island encourages. This ‘drama’, often in the form of bullying, exists to feed an eager public audience.
This is where personal responsibility comes back into the picture. Each of the 3.3 million average viewers of Love Island also have a responsibility to understand the ethics of what they are watching and to stop watching if they disagree with it. Effectually impacting the profitability of the production through a drop in viewership. The realities of consumerism have created reality TV, but capitalism serves one thing: capital. If there wasn’t an audience for these shows, they wouldn’t be watched, they wouldn’t be making television producers any money, and they, therefore, wouldn’t exist.
Banning these programmes would not only push us into a debate regarding freedom of expression, but it would absolve the public of the responsibility to decide what kind of content to watch and thus condone. For better or for worse, the viewing public want these shows to continue and believe that the ethics of the show are simply not worrying enough to warrant a ban. It may be that ITV’s promises of greater psychological help for contestants have worked to allay people’s concerns. If there is going to be a real change to the way these shows operate, there must also be real change in the way we as an audience react to content like this. As it stands, the message that TV executives are receiving is a resounding thumbs-up.
A ban would not solve the problem of online hate. The vocally hateful minority view the shows’ superficial basis and banner of consumerism as an excuse for toxicity towards participants. But, banning these programmes wouldn’t change this insidious aspect of our society – one that finds a mainstream voice through the anonymity of the internet. Online hate is a wider issue that applies to pretty much all realms of the virtual world. Banning these shows won’t stop this awful new part of life, instead, we must look to change public attitudes and increase education on the horrific effects of online bullying.
So, I return to the issue of responsibility. Yes, British TV production companies are accountable for the content they create and should ensure their contestants are supported. But trusting large companies with ethical concerns has never been a very reliable tactic for ensuring change. I am not convinced that the general public wants the TV landscape to change, but even if they did, the potential for change is placed into the hands of the public by governing their viewership. I don’t see that happening any time soon.
Image credit: Dean (leu)