TV, Venue

Reality Television, Audience Perceptions, and Mental Health

Being dissatisfied with our lives is a part of the human experience. We have all, at some point, felt inadequate when compared to other people around us, like we are lagging behind and cannot get ahead no matter how hard we try or how many things we achieve. Luckily for us, switching on the screen of a TV allows us to escape our reality and enter another, as if by magic. As the coronavirus pandemic lessens in magnitude and places of work begin to reopen, these alternate realities can also re-emerge. Summer 2021 has brought the return of audience favourite shows such as Love Island, Too Hot to Handle, RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, The Circle; the list goes on. These shows hold the audience’s attention to such a degree that it becomes their lives too, conversations are had over who’s going home next, and why so-and-so is lying. These conversations happen everywhere, especially on social media, where almost anyone can say almost anything for almost everyone to see, even those the discussions are about.

I’ve personally never been on a reality TV show, but the feeling of someone talking about me behind my back is a familiar feeling and is to everyone. The majority of the time, things said about us, not directly to us, are not positive. Now imagine seeing that thousands of times a day on a platform you are expected to capitalise on and thrive off of. When the contestants of these reality shows step out of the screen and back into reality, they are faced with all of this. No matter how many adoring fans they gain, death threats, shaming, and general nastiness always permeate to the surface, overshadowing the support they get.

In the case of ‘Love Island’, in just over two years, three people associated with the show have committed suicide: contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis, and host Caroline Flack. This has prompted the production of the show to put into place a duty of care protocol and giving all contestants training on how to use social media and financial management. This may just be me, but I don’t think having to have training on how to function in everyday life after being exposed to the public’s attention on a TV show makes our reality a very healthy place, especially online. While Sophie, Mike and Caroline’s deaths are not seen to be linked to the show or social media trolling, they each received a huge amount of grief online for actions on and off the show, with little to no support from officials or the show itself. In the midst of a mental health crisis brought on through years of disregard for mental care, heightened by the upset to our regular reality the coronavirus pandemic has inflicted has thrown everything off balance. The moves the show and production have made are fantastic starting points in making mental health a less taboo topic. While it is the show’s responsibility to make sure its stars are protected when they re-enter the regular world, this issue would not exist without the audience. ‘Love Island’, like all reality television shows, thrive on their audiences, the very thing that can ruin them as well.

The wider, almost unchangeable problem is the public. Their satiation for escapism, especially in recent times, causes reality TV shows to thrive. They create the illusion that they are a different world, when in fact everything the watcher does still has an impact. Reality TV, while edited, scripted and staged, is still reality. If people’s understanding of this doesn’t change then these shows will no longer be reality TV, they’ll just be torture for the contestants.

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benjamin smith

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July 2021
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