Reality TV probe as Kyle show is cancelled

Loveless Island: Contestants Jess Shears and Dominic Lever (left) appear with Jeremy Kyle on Good Morning Britain

MPs are to probe the reality TV industry after the suspected suicide of a guest who was publicly humiliated for lying on the Jeremy Kyle Show. A judge has called it “human bear-baiting”.

Costume changes into tracksuits, free alcohol and malicious gossip to “rev up” warring families for a fight. The Jeremy Kyle Show was scripted reality TV, but not all its guests were let in on the secret.

Former producers for the long-running ITV show have revealed a “theatre of cruelty” culture that “ruthlessly broke” sometimes vulnerable guests.

“The name of the game in these television formats is public confrontation, with bigots and bullies in the audience whipped up into a frenzy and baited to cast judgment on people they hardly know,” writes former BBC producer Jawad Iqbal in The Times this morning.

MPs announced yesterday that there would be a formal inquiry into British reality TV, including public hearings about mental health support offered to participants.

They will look at whether certain programmes place unfair psychological pressure on participants, and encourage more extreme behaviour. The recent suicides of the former Love Island contestants Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon will be part of the inquiry.

After running for 15 years and producing more than 3,000 episodes, The Jeremy Kyle Show has now been wiped from the internet. Its YouTube archive featuring more than 10,000 clips has been deleted, while its Facebook page with over 1.3m followers has vanished, along with its Twitter account.

The show was suspended indefinitely by ITV on Monday following the death of a participant, 63-year-old Steve Dymond, a week after a programme featuring him was filmed.

This is nothing more than “a human form of bear-baiting”, said Alan Berg, a district judge who sentenced a man who head-butted his love rival during filming. “I have had the misfortune of viewing The Jeremy Kyle Show, and it seems to me that its whole purpose is to effect a morbid and depressing display of dysfunctional people who are in some kind of turmoil.”

Kyle himself is quoted this morning in The Sun admitting that he is “utterly devastated by the recent events”.

The show had a very simple formula, writes the journalist Kevin McKenna this morning. “Take several dysfunctional people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and watch their chaotic personal circumstances unravel in front of a studio audience…It is a study in human misery often wrought by poverty, health inequality and the failure of education.”

Orchestrated misery?

The defenders of reality TV make three points. First, a defence of pop culture in general. Who has the right to tell people what they ought to enjoy? Reality TV is massively popular. Second, a defence of the artistry and skill of the reality TV makers, whose elaborately contrived concoctions have been compared to Mozart operas. Third, an anti-censorship point. Of course, some reality TV is worse than others. But some music is pretty terrible. Some novels are rubbish. Some comedians are beyond the pale. Let people decide, not self-appointed moral guardians.

The attackers take a more specific angle. Trash can be fun as long as it doesn’t cause harm. Let’s celebrate pop culture that people enjoy (while wishing they consumed more serious and uplifting culture as well). But society must ban anything that smacks of exploitation or cruelty. Victorian freak shows would be unacceptable today. So should laughing at vulnerable people in emotional pain — which is more like licensed sadism than harmless fun.

You Decide

  1. Which reality TV shows would you agree to appear on, if any?
  2. Is there any legal form of entertainment today that you would ban?

Activities

  1. Invent your own reality TV format. Write a one-page proposal to ITV for a new series that could replace The Jeremy Kyle Show. (Remember, they will be looking for something less controversial right now.)
  2. Friends is a reworking of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Star Wars is an adaptation of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Pop culture and the classics are deeply related. Discuss!

Some People Say...

“These programs can be really, really compelling. Trash can be really good at what it does. Let’s face it: not everything is a Henry James novel.”

Robert Thompson, professor and pop culture expert

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Following the death of Steve Dymond, who appeared on The Jeremy Kyle Show last week, ITV has cancelled future broadcasting of the reality TV programme, and also deleted its online presence. This is not the first time former participants on reality TV shows have committed suicide. There will be a formal inquiry into British reality TV, including public hearings about mental health support offered to participants.
What do we not know?
Is this the start of the end of reality TV — despite the public’s appetite for them? Will the inquiry make it harder for ordinary people to appear on TV? Reality TV is cheap to make so, given tight budgets, how much will TV makers invest in the psychological support they offer to contestants in future?

Word Watch

Formal inquiry
MP Damian Collins said, yesterday, that the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, which he chairs, would launch a formal inquiry into the British reality TV programme industry.
Victorian freak shows
The exhibition of people considered to be freaks, monstrosities or marvels of nature were essential components of travelling exhibitions in Europe and America throughout the Victorian period.

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