The struggle for reality TV to be more ethical: why audiences are drawn to watching others suffer.
The situation is changing: reality TV is making more of an effort to improve its image. Today’s socially aware audiences are highly conscious of contestants being taken advantage of or portrayed as villains, leading producers to make their shows more “ethical.” This can include providing psychological support for participants before and after filming on shows like Love Island, Married at First Sight UK (MAFS UK), and Big Brother, as well as limiting excessive alcohol consumption by contestants. However, there is one issue: how can a show be both considerate to participants and engaging for viewers?
One could argue that the concept of cruelty is deeply ingrained in the structure of reality television. Viewers are not drawn to shows like Married at First Sight or Selling Sunset for the purpose of observing rational and content individuals. Instead, they tune in to witness contestants shout and weep, invade personal boundaries, and ridicule the “villains” portrayed through editing (typically through X). While it is undoubtedly important to prioritize the well-being of reality TV stars, eliminating cruelty altogether poses a challenging task for producers.
Take Love Island. After former contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis killed themselves, the reality show has made particular efforts to protect the wellbeing of its cast. But this kinder approach may be proving a turn-off for viewers, despite audiences claiming to want more socially conscious shows. Love Island is arguably becoming less entertaining as it has become more ethical, with last season’s launch show watched by 1.3 million viewers – 2 million down from the 3.3 million who tuned in back in 2019.
In contrast, MAFS has had record-breaking ratings this season, with an average of 2 million viewers per episode. This is not a coincidence, as this season has been one of the most chaotic to date. The dissolution of the “marriage” between Nathanial Valentino and Ella Morgan Clark was a major storyline. The heated argument at the dinner party, which led to Valentino leaving the show, made for captivating television. “JJ and Ella” trended on X in the UK on the night the episode aired. However, the experience of filming MAFS had a severe impact on Valentino’s mental health. He has since revealed that things became “dark” after filming ended and he spent two weeks in bed. Valentino admits that he was in a great place before joining the show, but now he requires therapy and feels emotionally drained.
Valentino, who identifies as pansexual, alleges that he and Clark were deliberately put in a situation that was doomed to fail behind the scenes. He claims that he initially wanted to be matched with a male partner, but was convinced by producers to marry Clark, who is the show’s first transgender bride. While he did agree to the match, he also states that he was coerced by producers who used emotional manipulation, pressuring him to “do it for the LGBT community” and using his pansexuality as a tool to make it happen. However, Channel 4 has refuted these allegations and maintains that Valentino entered into the experiment with full knowledge and consent.
Viewers have complex reasons for watching reality TV and it is not solely for the purpose of seeing contestants suffer. According to Dr Jacob Johanssen, associate professor in communications at St Mary’s University, London, while it may appear that viewers watch reality TV for entertainment or to escape reality, there is also an aspect of connecting with human emotions in their most raw and complex form. Viewers are drawn to the authenticity portrayed on screen and can relate to it on an emotional level.
Many viewers find pleasure in witnessing conflict on these shows because it allows them to feel recognized. This is a major factor in the popularity of MAFS: viewers are likely to connect with at least one relationship issue. In this current season, we have observed a couple in disagreement over having children, another dealing with differences in social status, and a third struggling with the disapproval of the bride’s parents towards the groom. However, what may be entertaining for the audience can be emotionally taxing for the participants.
According to Mike Spencer, an executive producer for Love Island and other reality TV shows, sharing one’s emotions on television takes a great deal of courage. He believes that it is possible to produce reality TV that is both ethical and engaging, but he also acknowledges that some productions prioritize sensational storylines above all else, which he finds to be obvious and excessive. Spencer notes that this trend is particularly prevalent in American reality TV, using Selling Sunset as an example where episodes revolve around creating drama. While this may be effective in keeping viewers interested and wanting more, Spencer emphasizes that the well-being of contestants should always be the top priority, a value shared by Lifted Entertainment, the production company behind Love Island. He also notes that some UK shows are attempting to follow this model, but it is crucial to put the welfare of all contestants first.
While there is still work to be done, it can be concluded that reality TV has improved in recent years. The days of producers exploiting contestants for ratings, such as airing a private encounter between two contestants or making harmful comments about someone’s appearance, are long gone. According to Spencer, as Love Island has progressed, the protocols for caring for contestants have also progressed, reflecting the changing social climate and ensuring proper aftercare measures are in place.
Television companies will always prioritize creating engaging narratives, which can be challenging when it comes to providing support. Channel 4 has publicly stated their commitment to the well-being of all participants on MAFS, offering support before, during, and after filming, including access to mental health resources 24/7. However, some contestants have expressed difficulty in fully accepting this support. Valentino shares that while Channel 4 has offered psychological support for MAFS stars, it has not been very beneficial. He describes it as “taking medicine from the people who caused harm.”
Despite our awareness of how reality TV can harm the mental health of its participants, we continue to indulge in it. Despite criticism, popular shows like MAFS UK and Selling Sunset are set to return for new seasons. Even though one of the stars of Selling Sunset has called out producers for creating fake drama, the show remains one of the top-watched on Netflix. It’s difficult to break away from this addictive habit, especially when we know that the people on these shows are being taken advantage of.
Johanssen has a positive outlook and believes that there is a demand for more compassionate reality TV shows. He proposes that viewers enjoy watching programs without excessive conflict and where contestants are not publicly embarrassed or humiliated. The Traitors, a new game show on BBC, is a prime example of this. While there may be tears and intense emotions, it all falls within the rules of the game – there are no feuds with ex-partners or heartbreaks shown on screen.
However, in reality, more provocative shows are still highly profitable. As long as there is an audience for them, executives will not end their production. According to Johanssen, “If viewers continue to demand morally questionable shows, they will continue to be produced.”