Participating in a reality show? Think again!
16-year-old Shinjini Sengupta suffered a paralytic attack and her parents are blaming the harsh treatment she got at a dance competition (reality show), but the TV show organisers blame pressure from parents. The doctors say reasons could be psychiatric, neurological, biological or viral..and tests are going on.
But whether or not the drubbing Shinjini received at the show played a role in her illness, it is a fact that such shows can have an adverse impact on vulnerable people. Some can take the public humiliation and some can’t.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of reality shows:
1) Song and dance shows/competitions like American Idol, Indian Idol or Biggest Loser Jeetega (weight loss show). Here the contestants are exposed to harsh and even cruel taunting words from judges. If they are voted out by the public it can be a double blow.
2) TV shows where a dozen or so people are put together in an unnatural environment (Survivor, Big Brother, Big Boss) without anything to read or any entertainment, thus forcing the contestants to interact with each other. Mostly it is the viewers who vote each contestant out. The artificial environment and tough competition gives rise to a lot of tension inside the house. Rude, petty behavior, back-biting and emotional outbursts are not just allowed but encouraged by the producers of the show as it makes the show more interesting to viewers.
But there are reality shows and reality shows and some that fall inbetween – like Splitsvilla on MTV, where a gang of girls compete to get the attention of two guys who have the power to vote them out. The girls go to extreme lengths to attract the attention of the boys, literally “begging for attention.”
Why these shows are popular
In India, Reality TV has caught on, and with rising TRP’s for such shows we seem to be seeing new formats every season. Various reasons have been put forward as to why people find these shows entertaining and voyeurism is often touted as a major reason, although there have been contrary opinions (Dan Brown)
Well, I do think it’s more than just voyeurism. People enjoy watching ruthless competition from the safety of their homes. It’s an outlet for their aggression and our animal instinct! There are many more reasons like the drama and emotion which is what bored viewers want.
What about the mental well-being of the contestants?
The viewers may rejoice but the contestants face insults and humiliation. In real life we face our humiliations silently, in the privacy of our minds and in our homes.
I have always wondered what public humiliation did to the minds of the contestants. A little reading unearthed the fact that there have been many cases of suicides of contestants during or after participation in such shows.
- Way back in 1997, 34 year old Sinisa Savija threw himself in front of a running train. He had just finished participating in a reality TV show Expedition: Robinson which was filmed on a Malaysian island. He happened to be the first contestant to be voted off the island, and his widow has said this public humiliation was too much for him to take.
- In 2005, a 23 year old participant (Najai Turpin) from The Contender an NBC reality TV show (boxing competition) committed suicide after filming was over and before the show was aired.
- That same year Melanie Bell (a television producer) who was participating in an “experimental reality show” called Vegas Elvis (which has members of a film crew as contestants) killed herself.
- Another case was that of 17 year old Carina Stephenson who killed herself after participating in a reality series called The Colony. The series involved spending four hard months in the Australian bush, alongwith other contestants.
- And there is the sad story of Deleese Williams who participated in a reality show Extreme Makeover which picked up “ugly” people and promised to transform them. In the show everyone was encouraged to point of the physical flaws of the participants, and family members too had to say what they felt. After the show (the transformation never took place) Deleese came back, severed her relationship with her family and a few months later committed suicide.
- Last year 35-year-old Cheryl Kosewicz died in an “apparent suicide” after being eliminated from the CBS reality show Pirate Master.
- There was also the attempted suicide of 22 year old Sisi last year, an X Factor finalist, after she was voted out of the show.
- And a recent case is that of 26 year old contestant (Nathan Clutter) killing himself after being eliminated on a Fox Reality show called Paradise Hotel 2.
I haven’t come across any study which compares suicides of reality show participants and suicides in general society. But the fact that depression and suicide happen after suffering defeat in such shows raises suspicions that some factor in the show could be the aggravating factor. Something that tilts the balance. Sure, people commit suicide after failing in real life too and factors that drive people to commit suicide are ultimately pressure from family and/or society, but when a television show meant to entertain people is implicated, it’s alarming.
Why are vulnerable people selected?
One wonders if there is any sort of proper selection process for contestants. For example Melanie Bell had a history of depression but she was still allowed to participate in the show. Nathan Clutter was also supposed to be suffering from depression and was in fact thought to be bi-polar. In some cases life circumstances at the time of participating may make the contestant vulnerable. For example, 17 year old Carina Stephenson was going through a very vulnerable phase in her life, having just revealed to her family that she was a lesbian.
Being a reality show contestant can be tough even for really tough people!
What viewers and wannabe contestants don’t always realise is how difficult it can be to be a participant in a reality show. It’s certainly no fun and games. They might think they can handle the negative publicity and public humiliation that might come with it, but they are not always the best judge of that. Participation in a reality show is a stressful life-event, and only someone who has gone through such a situation in real life (where they have been publicly humiliated) will understand what it involves. In a reality show it can be worse as people who don’t know you can recognize you! You could be taunted in school and college and called a loser. Not everyone can take it with a pinch of salt and a large dose of humour. It takes a lot of mental strength and courage to get through a reality show where one suffers loss and humiliation. Keeping one’s equilibrium is not easy even for normal people. It’s one thing to put up a show of being alright, another to really be so. Remember Jane Goody, the woman who humiliated Shilpa Shetty in Big Brother? The tables turned on her and this person, whom we all think of a real toughie broke down at the negative publicity she recieved and actually considered suicide! If strong people like that can get affected, what can happen to normal people? After all, one doesn’t know what awaits one at a reality show.
Are there any rules at all for selection of candidates?
Reality show organisers in developed countries do have certain rules they follow. For example, all Big Brother all contestants have to go through “a psychological assessment by an independent chartered psychologist with post graduate degrees in clinical psychology and psychotherapy.” Also, their medical history, recent prescriptions and illnesses are taken into account.
I really doubt whether such a procedure is followed by all shows, whether in India or abroad. In India, where this concept is still new I don’t think people even realise that one has to be careful about whom they select. It’s not just mentally ill people who are not recommended for TV reality shows. But also those who intensely need social acceptance and those who suffer from anxiety or even slight depression. The truth is that one never knows what can happen in a reality show and what the contestant might have to face for no fault of his/her own.
It is unfortunate, but reality show producers are actually quite happy if emotionally vulnerable people participate as it can mean more entertainment for the viewers. Drama, tears, emotion – that’s the stuff that viewers are looking for. So the producers may deliberately pick such candidates while going through the motions of being careful and just hope that nothing extreme happens. At times picking a candidate who is ruthless and mean can have an adverse effect on other contestants and this is also a strategy employed.
It’s the contestants who need to be prepared. All that craving for fame and name might just backfire. In western countries one gets the feeling that young people make these choices themselves, while in India parents tend to pressurize….either way I think only those with high emotional intelligence should be allowed to participate in these shows. Time to re-think that participation.
(Photo is copyrighted to me)
Related Reading: The greatest peril of modern society – Celebrity Culture
Suicide rates of the world and why people kill themselves
Rejecting others and isolating them seems to be a human trait (about the suicide of a young student)
Humans like forming ghettos
The Shilpa Shetty episode at Big Brother
Some people do not get affected by television
Rakhi Ka Swayamvar – Review