Craig JacksonBy Professor Craig Jackson, Head of the Psychology Division and is Professor of Occupational Health Psychology at Birmingham City University

There is little doubt that reality TV shows that rely on viewers voting in and selecting who does or doesn’t succeed remain as popular as ever. Despite a slight increase in the viewing public’s cynicism over the formulaic nature of shows such as X-factor, I’m a celebrity, and Strictly come dancing, they retain their pomp. The current series of X-factor opened to a personal best record-breaking 11 million viewers.

But with such shows comes the inevitable tales of hardship and adversity – the personal challenges and difficulties that contestants are routinely expected to overcome. Some do and some don’t – often spectacularly breaking down or displaying the most amazing absence of self-awareness and decorum. These “contestant meltdowns” although ethically questionable, have become a staple of this formula, however, something in this brand of reality TV has taken a darker turn recently.

A new level of celebrity-baiting, where viewers almost gang up on chosen targets in celebrity reality TV shows seems to have become quite common. If enough viewers text or internet vote for their least favourite celebrity to be locked in a dark room full of insects, then it shall be made so. Some will remember how the glamour model Jordan was constantly required to take part in the most unpleasant tasks on a previous series of “I’m a celebrity…” This was the result of an orchestrated viewer campaign -aided and abetted by the internet of course – who chose to take their displeasure with Jordan’s marital breakdown out on her personally.

This vicarious bullying is almost routinely accepted as part of the game – after all that is what it is supposed to be of course – for viewers, TV producers, and celebrity contestants alike. The warning signs where there when celebrity contestants started to get injured when performing such tasks, with Christine Hamilton sporting a black eye after one of her stunts was poorly supervised, and only this week Gillian McKeith losing consciousness after being locked in a coffin. As a psychologist, this suggests that things are not healthy in the jungle, nor in the living rooms of viewers who vote for such tortures.

Celebrity game shows have become the modern day equivalent of carceral tours poking around asylums, and pitying the unfortunates within. There is comfort for some in other people’s problems. Schadenfreude, where “nothing is as good as watching someone else cop for it,” is a universal desire – one that we may not readily admit to. But when that someone is a privileged person who has fame and fortune, then it seems perfectly acceptable by today’s standards to take an active interest in the suffering. The producers are treading a fine line – not only that of health and safety – but in stretching our ethical standards before our very eyes. Big Brother, that other behemoth of popularity, began to wane when viewers found successive series to be too similar and cruel.

Another worrying aspect about the glut of interactive TV that I witness daily concerns the apathy that is created when TV is not interactive – when there is no number for the viewer to text and submit a vote, nor a red button to press. Many students I encounter on degree courses admit they do not watch the news, current affairs or read a newspaper because they claim that real life is too depressing. When pressed further on this, many reveal that they have little interest in something like the news that they cannot control or influence by “voting in” – and this inability to change or influence current events in the way that they can with reality TV, leaves them uninterested. Unless TV is directly interactive and outcomes are able to be influenced, many younger people will not switch on.

The viewer backlash against TV cruelty has not happened to “I’m a celebrity…” yet, and the producers are, unfortunately for society, on to a ratings-winner. It saddens me as a university professor that I cannot encourage enough of my students to read great life-affirming books, poems or literature, yet many will happily expose themselves to this televised shoddy treatment of other human beings. And as they are the future generation of caring professionals – doctors, nurses, psychologists and counsellors, their ready acceptance of such suffering worries me. Broadcasting ethics? Pah!

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Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University