What happens when the cameras stop rolling? Reality TV stars and contestants are often thrust into the limelight, but their fame (or infamy) often lasts well past the finale. At that point, who has responsibility for the fallout? And how far does that responsibility extend?
These were the questions at the heart of the Steve Hewlett Debate, “Who Cares? Life Before and After TV,” at the Edinburgh TV Festival today (Aug. 22).
The discussion comes on the heels of duty of care becoming a hot-button issue in the reality TV space, particularly in the UK.
In May, the UK parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee (DCMS) launched an inquiry into reality television production practices — specifically, “production companies’ duty of care to participants” in the wake of the death of a guest taking part in an episode of tabloid talk show The Jeremy Kyle Show, and the deaths of two former contestants of hit competition series Love Island.
ITV promptly cancelled The Jeremy Kyle Show after issuing a statement about its procedures and duty of care measures.
The panel was moderated by Leanne Klein, CEO of indie TV prodco Wall to Wall, part of Warner Bros. Television Productions UK. Joining her onstage were Tim Hincks, co-CEO of Expectation; Kelly Webb-Lamb, deputy director of programs and head of popular factual at Channel 4; Clare Sillery, head of commissioning, documentaries at the BBC; Jeff Brazier, television presenter and reality TV star; and Angela Jain, managing director of ITV Studios Entertainment.
Having a reality TV star on the panel offered rare insight from the other side of the camera. Having emerged as a contestant on Shipwrecked in 2001 and most recently appearing on the celebrity edition of SAS: Who Dares Wins last year, Brazier could offer insights into how the industry has already evolved enormously.
“When I was on Shipwrecked, there would be no meetings with anyone before… to go over where you were at with regards to your mental health, nor was there a great deal of contact afterwards. People didn’t know that that was required at the time, potentially,” he said. “Whereas with SAS, I spoke to a psychotherapist beforehand, during, afterwards as well, a number of times, because obviously they’re very, very careful to ensure that the process, which is one of the more extreme that you can probably experience, wouldn’t have a profoundly negative effect on you.”
Brazier could also speak to the myth of the perfect contestant: someone immune to the pressures of having celebrity thrust upon them suddenly. Someone already famous, for example.
“It’s crazy to imagine that a celebrity wouldn’t struggle with mental health,” he said.
The panelists agreed that duty of care is vitally important, while the obvious nuances of such a question left the discussion lively and without clear or easy answers.
“This is also in the background of, thankfully, society talking more openly about mental health issues and well-being,” said Jain, reflecting the reality that a discussion such as this never happens in a vacuum. “That’s changed, so for media, the sometimes really febrile atmosphere that encourages and contains, it just means that our processes are constantly evolving. ”
Another common thread that emerged was the firm belief that, important as duty of care is, it’s not new. Producers, who care deeply about the people who appear in their shows, have been negotiating an evolving approach to care for over a decade, building on lessons learned over time. “Of course we care,” became something a motif during the talk. And the notion that panic, from the government in particular, is not always well-founded or informed certainly loomed large.
“Television has always been regulated by people and, certainly when it comes to MPs, scrutinized by people who don’t watch it. There’s snobbery about television,” said Hincks. “Whilst it’s incredibly important, essential to be held to account, I think this notion that all these mad, off-the-wall things have been happening as we push people further and further, is a trope that’s been going on certainly since the beginning of Big Brother.”
There was also some pushback against some of the developing narrative surrounding duty of care, particularly where regulations and risk are concerned. If the onus is on producers to ensure the well-being of participants, that comes with a financial commitment, but how does that — or should that — affect other choices?
“I wonder whether they will end up only choosing secure types, or as secure as you can see for your shows, because ultimately this care and after-care is an insurance policy,” said Brazier.
“We absolutely must not allow this to become about taste or scale or risk or creativity or innovation,” said Webb-Lamb, recognizing a similar risk with imposing restrictions. “What I do not want is for producers to limit the ideas that they come to us with, the things that they want to do, the ambition of the programs they want to make.”
This last point highlighted the dual importance of safety and the well-being of those on camera and that of the spotlight that can be put on important stories.
“One of the most important things that we do is give voice to vulnerable people, people who may not otherwise have a voice, and that might be through documentaries, and it might be through reality TV,” said Webb-Lamb.
“We need to continue to tackle difficult subjects, to tell difficult stories and to allow people who have gone through hard times, who have got mental health problems, who have experienced sexual abuse, who aren’t famous, for example, to tell their stories, to be able to have a chance to have their voices heard.”