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How a long-forgotten suicide helped define reality TV voyeurism

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Twenty-three years and one month ago, Channel 4 broadcast footage of people snoring under duvets, in a custom-made house in Bow, east London. Big Brother had been born. Part social experiment, part comment on surveillance culture, part game show, Big Brother proved that people would watch strangers do anything – including nothing much at all – when there was something at stake.

Big Brother’s launch night was watched by 3.7 million people, and figures went up from there. Channel 4 even developed a 24-hour live feed, so fans could peer into the house at any time. That was only the start. As the new millennium kicked into gear, reality not only seemed stranger than fiction, but more gripping and compulsive than it, too. Today, viewers are so used to being voyeurs that it’s hard to separate reality TV from television more broadly; to know where reality ends and begins.

In his new book Edge of Reality: Journeys Through the Rabbit Hole of Reality Television, investigative journalist Jacques Peretti describes watching as, over the years, reality TV “built a surreal parallel universe of nerd virgins, ice truckers, gold-diggers, hooch-brewing farmers, Elvis impersonators, naked couples on a desert island, families competing for the best funeral ever, bakers making the weirdest cupcakes or contestants fighting a grizzly bear”.

But, Edge of Reality is not simply a survey of this “surreal parallel universe”, and it is not only concerned with reality TV’s rise and influence. Its true focus is the industry’s hidden mechanics – the “tricks of the trade”, as Peretti puts it. The producers, psychologists, NDAs and, most importantly, “one very big, very dark secret the reality TV industry has kept from the beginning”. Because while Big Brother might have caused a huge splash, it was not the first programme to gather a group of strangers together, put them in a confined space, and film their reactions. It wasn’t even the first to whittle down its cast one by one.

Three years before, there was Expedition Robinson, and a 34-year-old man named Sinisa Savija. He was one of 16 people recruited for the Swedish reality show, which launched in 1997. The show was named after Robinson Crusoe, because – surprise, surprise – it essentially involved a group of people stranded on an island trying to survive. In fact, not just survive, but win. For the first time in television history, contestants would have to vote for which of their group to eliminate. They had to turn on each other. Really, this innovative new television format should have been called Expedition Lord of the Flies, but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. The concept had been dreamed up by British producer Charlie Parsons, who originally tried to sell the show to America. But American producers didn’t bite for one simple reason: they thought Parsons’s idea might get someone killed. They weren’t wrong.

Savija was the first contestant to be “eliminated” by his fellow islanders. Four weeks later, before the show began airing, he stepped out in front of a high-speed train. The resulting scandal around his death didn’t put the brakes on this TV experiment, however. The press attention actually increased viewer numbers. Expedition Robinson became a smash hit – so much so that an American TV network did pick up the concept eventually, with one major change. They renamed it Survivor.

This is the “very dark secret” Peretti refers to: “Those from reality TV who have died, and how this has been covered up.” Far from being an exceptional case, Savija was the first of at least 40 recorded suicides linked to a reality TV show. In Edge of Reality, Peretti tells some of the human stories behind this statistic. There’s Melanie Bell, a producer for a reality show about Elvis impersonators, who was required to be on camera during the show, and took her life during filming. There’s Najai Turpin, who was eliminated from mid-2000s boxing reality show The Contender, after losing a fight to a much heavier boxer (some of his friends, Peretti hints, think it might have been a set-up). Turpin hid his loss from everyone for two months – keeping silent out of fear that, if he spoke about what happened on the show to anyone close to him, even his wife, he’d be sued for breach of contract. Three weeks before the programme aired, he took his own life.



Reality TV needs to keep moving, like a shark, driving ever onward, and becoming more extreme

Jacques Peretti

There are other stories too – of contestants erupting into horrific violence after television appearances, and of violent individuals sailing through supposedly rigorous vetting processes. Ryan Jenkins, for example, appears on VH1 show Megan Wants a Millionaire, and then later I Love Money 3. Before that show wraps, his wife’s body is found in a dumpster, Jenkins goes on the run, and TMZ uncovers he had previously been arrested for domestic assault – something VH1 claimed had not appeared on his background check. Jonathan Schmitz appears on The Jenny Jones Show, and is presented with an acquaintance, Scott Amedure, who is goaded into describing sexual fantasies he’s had about Schmitz. Days after appearing on the show, Schmitz shot Amedure twice in the chest, killing him instantly.

Could any or all of these terrible events have been avoided, if reality TV didn’t rely on humiliation, manipulation, or outright deception? If it didn’t deliberately create pressure-cooker environments? Peretti certainly imagines “an alternate-universe scenario”, where Schmitz and Amedure were “treated humanely”. He wagers the audience would also have been “gripped, and moved” to see a sensitive talk between the two men, rather than a “human zoo on daytime TV”. So, are there ways reality TV can become more humane?

“On many shows, empathy and kindness are shown by contestants, not producers,” Peretti tells me. “These contestants are bonded by the trauma of being on the show. Producers want to show that softer stuff because it makes the audience sympathetic.” He points to the US series Below Deck, which follows the crew of a superyacht, and how the cast started off bickering and dislikable, but “[ended] up likeable and bonded”. “It’s their emotional ‘journey’,” he says. “But with elimination reality TV, the end goal is always going to be conflict,” Peretti stresses. “Someone needs to go, every time, and it means things must always turn nasty. I think cruelty will always win out because it is baked into the requirements of competition.”

It is hardly surprising he feels this way, given the stories he’s heard from behind the scenes of the reality machine. “Dozens of contestants I spoke to said that they have been traumatised, suffered mental health issues or attempted suicide after appearing on a reality show,” he says. “Casting producers target vulnerable and emotionally unstable people because they will, they believe, make great TV. Often, the show becomes the catalyst that pushes them to the edge.” Knowing this, it’s easy to feel guilty – like we viewers might have blood on our hands. Yet, towards the end of the book, Peretti pushes back on this. He even makes a comparison between the reality TV industry and the tobacco industry. Both, he suggests, attempt to shift blame onto the individual consumer, to deflect from those really pulling the strings. Of course, viewers find it hard to simply turn off – reality formats are designed to be, as one unnamed producer puts it to Peretti, “the crack cocaine of TV”. But, if reality TV is like an addictive drug, could it be subject to greater controls, in order to reduce harm?

Original ‘Big Brother’ host Davina McCall with Craig Phillips, the UK show’s first winner, in 2000

(Shutterstock)

“I totally think it’s possible,” Peretti says, “but will it happen? No.” He highlights that the UK parliament attempted to investigate multiple deaths linked to Love Island and The Jeremy Kyle Show, but halted them when an election was called. “Nothing was done,” Peretti states, and points out that the existing guidelines for producers are “just that, voluntary guidelines”.

Among former contestants, though, clamour for change is getting louder. And all those Peretti spoke to agree what needs to be done. Firstly, they call for a clear firewall between psychologists and production teams, so psychologists “don’t become unwitting casting directors who point producers to potentially vulnerable contestants and share confidential medical history”. Secondly, they want shows to stop editing or scripting contestants as “characters”, and allow them to be accurately portrayed. “This gross mis-characterisation is the reason people receive death threats on Twitter, and then try to take their own lives,” Peretti says.

Finally, rather than tokenistic and highly limited access to psychological assistance, networks should be required to provide ongoing, open-ended support for ex-contestants, with a small but dedicated team of professionals on call, paid for by the broadcaster and not the production company. “This is a real and tangible commitment to mental health welfare broadcasters would make if they were serious about protecting lives,” he says. “And it would cost them peanuts.”

At the moment, though, these calls seem to be falling on deaf ears. “Reality TV needs to keep moving, like a shark, driving ever onward, and becoming more extreme,” Peretti writes in Edge of Reality. Who, for example, could have watched Netflix’s South Korean drama series Squid Game – about cash-strapped people participating in deadly challenges for money – and thought the murderous set-up was ripe for a real-life version? Well, now it’s actually being made.

The focus of Jacques Peretti’s ‘Edge of Reality’ is the industry’s hidden mechanics – the ‘tricks of the trade’, as the author puts it

(Dorling Kindersley Ltd)

“TV loves self-cannibalisation,” Peretti notes. “There are development producers I know whose sole job is to find long-dead formats from the last 20 years and resurrect them, with a new twist,” he says. “Now there’s an audience who wasn’t born when Big Brother was first on, so it’s perfectly feasible to go all the way back to the beginning.” This, of course, is exactly what ITV are doing by bringing Big Brother back to screens this autumn. Now, producers are not only trading on the shock of the new, but also on nostalgia – a return to a simpler time, before reality TV became the behemoth it is today. “Watching [old series of Big Brother] now is like an age of innocence before reality became this ultra-high-processed product,” Peretti suggests. “It’s like wholemeal bread or something. It feels… real.”

Perhaps, then, after two decades of bingeing on ever-more-extreme reality, people are now craving “anti-entertainment” – simpler, slower and more innocent content, like people bickering over groceries, or snoring under duvets. Of course, this kind of content is already readily available, not at the touch of a TV remote, but a tap of the smartphone.

“The amazing thing to me is how content creators on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok have taken that old-fashioned grammar of TV and applied it to their myriad versions of reality,” Peretti points out. People eating on camera, sleeping on camera, going about their lives on camera. People editing and narrating their lives, and packaging them as public entertainment.

The real question, then, is have we learned anything from the dark underbelly of reality TV, or have we just allowed it to swallow us whole? “To me, the truest reality TV now is TikTok itself,” Peretti says finally. “If you think about it, TikTok is just one giant reality show with millions of contestants fighting for views and likes, and with the prize being potentially millions of dollars. It’s the most genuine child of the reality TV experiment. The ultimate contest.”

‘Edge of Reality: Journeys Through the Rabbit Hole of Reality Television’ by Jacques Peretti is out now

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