Reality TV fails in duty of care to contestants


Production teams have a moral responsibility to look after their reality TV stars

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Image by Robin Jacob

By Ellie Robinson

CONTENT WARNING: this article contains references to suicide and mental health struggles

Picture this: you have just been given the opportunity of a lifetime – to appear on the biggest reality show in the country. Fame and fortune are yours for the taking; a life of glitz and glamour with little to no worries ahead of you (not to mention the classic blue tick in the palm of your hand). Then suddenly the media and people you’ve never even met before are laughing at your misfortune, picking up on every mistake you’ve ever made. They’re looking at you, oblivious to you crumbling and drowning under the pressure. To top it all off, the people who have brought you into this life can't even give you basic protection and care. Whether you’re an avid viewer, have a secret guilty pleasure or can’t stand anything reality TV-based, we can all agree on one thing: reality shows are failing in their duty of care to contestants.

When I log onto my Netflix or All4 I am reminded of my watch history: countless showings of Love IslandToo Hot to Handle, and Married at First Sight. I hate all things drama, spectacle and confrontation in my own life, so why do I seek it from people I don’t even know? Whilst I indulge in the tears, the laughs and the screaming matches of reality shows, those same people are engulfed in mental health struggles and pressures, which are completely ignored by both viewers and the production teams responsible for those issues. This really hit home after the tragic suicides of Love Island contestants Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon. It raised one crucial question: why has the loss of two lives not sparked an overhaul of the after-care on reality television?

To be crystal clear, I do not condemn anyone who watches reality TV. Let’s face it, it has become one of the foundations of bonding and relationships. The most common questions a hairdresser will ask you include: ‘are you doing anything nice tonight?’ and ‘have you been watching [insert drama-filled reality show here]?’ But it has also become the basis for mental health crises, the source of insecurity and psychological struggle. No matter the reason contestants sign up for these shows, every individual who enters this world is deserving of rigorous and stringent after-care, to prevent mental health problems of any kind, and this responsibility should be on the production teams. One death is too many and justifies a complete revamp of the protocol of after-care.

In a world where criticism and feedback is more accessible than an affordable hot meal, we cannot toss people into the world of media and fame without regular psychological checks and therapy sessions to ensure past contestants are coping with this lifestyle. If we can provide former politicians with lifelong security, why can we not supply on-hand therapy for past reality show contestants?

Some may argue politicians have a sustained importance and gained achievement which allows them this security. However, both politicians and reality TV contestants face the same amount of criticism, media attention and fame; both candidate groups express their own views, opinions and misfortunes which are attacked by the public. So why is there an asymmetry of after-care between both roles? Despite reality show contestants facing the same difficulties as other roles in the limelight, they are constantly cast aside. The stigma around reality TV and the argument that the contestants actively chose this lifestyle, removes any kind of care and help. Every person in the media and TV chose that kind of lifestyle and this amount of exposure to the public and press is justification enough for psychological training and protection.

The distinction between these two groups lies in the fact that reality contestants' success is found overnight, whilst an established celebrity's fame is a much slower process. This ‘overnight fame’ gives rise to an overwhelming amount of scrutiny and criticism, in which contestants are subjected to with no preparation of how to deal with it.

It is thus the moral responsibility of these shows to provide regular therapy, frequent conversations and more after-care post production. It would be unreasonable to suggest these shows have absolutely no after-care implemented for their contestants, but the methods they do have need to be significantly increased and executed on a regular and stringent basis.

Love Island has taken the wrap for a lot of wrong-doing when it is not the only reality show to do so. The 2022 series of Married at First Sight UK was one of autumn’s most talked-about shows. One of the primary story lines involved the marriage of Gemma Rose and Matt Jameson, with Matt and another contestant Whitney Hughes allegedly cheating on their partners to be with each other. Contestant Gemma Rose has since claimed that the programme’s editing was “unacceptable,” painting her as a villain and deleting crucial parts of their relationship from the show’s content. She has since stated she regrets entering the show entirely and had a “complete lack of control over her persona” on the show.

It appears the producers of these shows presuppose the character of these contestants with clever editing and camera tricks, to create their own desired narrative.

These narratives then cause significant criticism and backlash aimed at these people. When producers create villains of the contestants, they tear their lives apart and leave them to pick up the pieces. Whilst responsible edits will improve the situation, they won’t resolve the problem entirely. Instead of leaving them to deal with the consequences, producers need to be on hand to deal with the inevitable negativity these contestants will be subjected to and provide stringent after-care.

The negativity and most importantly the mental health issues appear to come as a necessary condition of reality TV, which justifies a complete shake-up of the provided after-care. It’s completely black and white what corporations need to do: listen. Producers need to provide a strict and frequent mechanism of after-care for contestants in which they listen to contestants' needs, listen to the issues they are facing and listen to any resources they may desire. It’s essential they provide a consistent after-care, which not only prevents any more of the tragedies that have already occurred but also supplies contestants with the tools to overcome psychological struggles. We are in a mental health crisis and this doesn’t exclude reality stars.