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June 01, 2009
This entry responds to two broadcasts I watched/listened to over the past two days. The first was a C4 programme about the controversial history of BIG BROTHER and the headlines it provked, and the other was Radio 4's 'Start the Week', in which two worrying academics sounded off about the treatment of Susan Boyle in the aftermath of her defeat on 'Britain's Got Talent'. Although the programmes were not similar in tone, theme or even subject, they started me thinking about one aspect of reality TV which seems rarely to be debated - what do we do with the stars once the cameras are turned off?
One of the people on 'start the week' were made the interesting, if laboured, comparison between the producers of 'BGT' and his own work as an academic researcher. His key point was to stress that, were the TV folk subject to the same kind of ethical scrutiny that researchers must go through in order to conduct their experiments (he was a criminologist, but I would say that most of those working in the social sciences have the same issues), then the likes of Susan Boyle would never be allowed near a TV studio, let aloneX within Simon Cowell's evil-eyed radius. Because their game is commercial, not 'in the public interest', apparently ITV do not treat their subjects with the same kind of dignity and respect as lab subjects in experiments. This academic used the term 'duty of care', clearly criticizing ITV for failing, both in Boyle's case and in that of Hollie Steel - whose brattish tantrum seems to have been accepted by the general public as the behaviour of any normal child under immense pressure. I fail to see how this argument stands up, when the other children on the programme were polite, courteous and pleasant, but this is beside the point. What I am getting at here, is the question of whether such a 'duty of care' does exist when 'ordinary' people are thrust into the public eye?
Its an intriguing question. On the one hand, it is very difficult to feel any sympathy with contestants who audition for programmes like BGT, X Factor or Big Brother, then find that fame is difficult to cope with. We think 'they knew what they were letting themselves in for in the first place', or if they didn't, they really should know by now. But even though superficially, people may seem mentally equipped and prepared for what might face them, who really knows how they would cope with such a large and fundamental change. DO we really suppose that when Susan Boyle turned up to the auditions for BGT, she could possibly have guessed at the extent to which the hysteria would rise? I am fairly certain she would not have anticipated the vile and vitriolic attacks of the tabloids, nor the patronising analysis of the 'boyle effect' that went on in newspapers that should know better. Now she has been taken off to the Priory for r&r, in the quickest rise and fall celebrity story to date - from nobody to rehab in seven short weeks. I only hope that she has adequate friends and family to look out for her real interests, and doesn't fall prey to the avaricious, conniving bunch of managers and talent agents that usually swarm around reality TV stars.
Much may be made, in the next few weeks, of the duty of care to Susan Boyle after the fact: how she copes with the enormous fame now she has it. My question is, does the duty of care to reality TV contestants not begin long before the cameras roll? Big Brother has a well-known screening process, in which potential contestants are screened and screened before they hit the screens to test whether or not they are potential psychotics or not. I am being a little facetious here to prove a point. I worry about this screening process. Many of the contestants who feature on big brother (Shabaz from series 5, Alexandra and Denis from the last series) are so deranged and disturbed that you wonder how they were not immediately referred to a mental health professional when they were auditioned. Any decent sense of 'care' for these people would prevent their appearing in the kind of pressure cooker that reality TV creates.
For its subjects, reality TV is an incubator for a cruel and hostile life in the public eye. I believe that the people behind the cameras should feel a duty to prepare those in front of them for what might come next, and also should accept some responsibility for the outcome. But while these subjects are still seen as oddities, curios and eccentrics, rather than human beings, it is unlikely that they will be afforded the proper treatment they need after the lights are turned off.