Recently, in the depths of hungover despair, I binge-watched the latest series of ITV’s The Only Way is Essex. I used to be a huge fan of the "structured reality" show (a term that loosely means "some of this is made up"), but stopped watching last year, after two particularly shocking scenes where cast members James Locke and Myles Barnett were abusive towards their respective partners, Yazmin Oukhellou and Courtney Green. Women’s Aid publicly criticised TOWIE for “glamorising abusive behaviour.” Somewhere between all the “shaaht uppp,” vajazzles and the GC’s divaship, TOWIE – the show that ushered in a new era of British reality TV – had lost its way.
When I tuned back in, I was struck by the effort the show now makes to distance itself from this toxicity. The 2019 series still features plenty of arguments, but producers now dedicate a proportion of each episode to positive storylines. Gay cast member Bobby Norris, for example, has been filmed promoting a petition that calls on the government to make anti-LGBT+ trolling a criminal offence. Elsewhere, male mental health has also been featured, as has sexual health.
TOWIE isn’t the only reality show trying to detoxify its brand by developing a sense of social responsibility. The newest seasons of Keeping up with the Kardashians are practically an infomercial for “Kanye West the charity man and good dad,” following his highly-publicised Make America Great Again pivot at the beginning of 2019. And Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise steadily pivoted away from portraying its cast as trophy wives, focussing instead on business mogul and philanthropist 'housewives' like New York City’s Bethenny Frankel. In a climate where viewers are more attuned to social justice than ever, reality TV is being forced to rebrand. But is it working? And are audience desires really as straightforward as wanting shows to clean up their acts?
Toxic reality TV is a very British addiction. Shows on many of Britain's TV channels have cheerily normalised humiliation over the last 20 years – see Embarrassing Bodies and Channel 4’s offensively named The Undateables; the adventures of "Doctor" shit inspector Gillian McKeith on You Are What You Eat (which ran between 2004 and 2007 on Channel 4); Trinny and Susannah's 2001-2007 reign of terror; and omnipresent tropical torture-fest I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!. Recently, following the suicide of Steve Dymond after he had participated in the (now-cancelled) Jeremy Kyle Show, as well as the deaths by suicide of two Love Island contestants, a national conversation has arisen about the wellbeing of reality contestants, even prompting a parliamentary select committee on care for reality stars.
And so Channel 4 reality shows such as First Dates, Gogglebox, One Born Every Minute and 24 Hours in A&E have demonstrated a recent move towards more 'positive' reality programming, showcasing the funny and caring aspects of human nature. To ensure a positive experience for viewers and contestants, Alan* – who worked on First Dates Hotel – tells me that each dater is painstakingly vetted. “Every person that appeared on First Dates Hotel had to go through a series of rigorous checks as a standard part of the process,” he says. “Online, we'd be looking out for anything from racism, homophobia and violence, all in addition to a criminal background check and personal references.”
Geordie Shore – the Jersey Shore offshoot that partly revolves around binge-drinking, often-violent confrontations and occasional arrests – seems to be moving in this more empathetic direction. Abi* has worked as a researcher on several series of the Newcastle-based show, and tells me that, of all the reality shows she’s worked on, Geordie Shore is the “most real” as it’s not “structured or scripted.” As for the criticisms of the behaviour of some of its stars, or the binge-drinking culture it promotes, she says that producers monitor safety closely. “We have so many security guards, but also as the series goes on, alcohol limits are put in place and gradually lowered, so it’s much more controlled than it used to be.”
Abi also describes a new strictness when preparing reality stars for life in front of the camera. “When you're casting, you have to make people very aware of what they're getting themselves in for,” she says. “You have to put in complete black and white.” She thinks the show has also become less explicit, particularly when it comes to sex. “In the earlier seasons of the Geordie Shore, when the stars had sex with people the night cameras would zoom in and really focus on it,” she explains. “But that doesn’t happen anymore. Just like the more graphic mic noises and duvet movements are now edited out of the newer series of Love Island.”
Indeed, this year ITV’s Love Island very publicly altered many of its guidelines, partly in response to the suicide of season 3 star Mike Thalassitis. But why should it take someone to die for TV shows to act more responsibly? Surely these moves are more about reality shows protecting themselves, to steer audience narratives away from their toxicity, than protecting contestants?
Over the past year, we’ve seen British reality TV attempt to reflect on the damage that it has caused. Channel 4’s Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain explored how Big Brother star Jade Goody was exploited by the TV cameras right up until her death. Never-before-seen interviews gave new context to the story of Goody racially abusing Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, in footage captured by the show’s many cameras. Little Mix group member Jesy Nelson’s BBC documentary, Odd One Out , examined how online trolling after appearing on X Factor took a huge toll on her wellbeing. But these patterns of destruction are still happening, and frequently the audience takes part.
This prompts an uncomfortable question: do we actually hate reality TV’s toxicity? Are reality shows just catering to our sadistic demands, inspiring thousands to fire off venomous tweets in real time, which contestants may have to face when back in the real world? After all, 68 million Americans voted for an unashamedly toxic reality TV star to become their president. The US version of The Apprentice combusted as soon as Trump left, with abysmal ratings leading to its swift cancellation. Since The X Factor turned its back on mocking vulnerable contestants, its ratings similarly nosedived.
Reality TV audiences tend to be contradictory. On the whole, viewers don’t want to feel guilty or unethical while watching their favourite shows, particularly with high-profile reality stars dying, and suffering from mental health problems. Ava, 26, a religious watcher of seven different Real Housewives franchises, tells me that she often feels conflicted as a viewer. “I find it so interesting to entertaining watching these women live a life I never will, but it's hard when shows forget where the line is,” she says. “I often feel like I have to justify watching it to myself, like: ‘Oh, but it shows business women too, but it’s just entertainment, but it’s probably scripted, but they’re getting paid…’”
Abi tells me that, working in the industry, you can tell that audiences are divided on what exactly they want from reality TV. “There’s a complete split in the viewership,” she says. “Half want to watch something silly and fun, regardless of any bigger messages it sends, but the other half are reacting to all the terrible things that have happened to contestants on Love Island after they left the show, and see reality TV as a part of bigger problems.”
If you're waiting for fully detoxified reality TV, don’t hold your breath. After all, Channel 4 apparently saw nothing wrong with sending Scarlett Moffatt’s entire family to live with a Namibian tribe in colonialist car-crash The Tribe Next Door. We’re also still getting The SurJury – a show where contestants trust a jury of strangers to decide whether or not they should have plastic surgery – next year. It can often seem hard to believe that reality TV has fundamentally changed. And no matter what viewers might say, I'm not entirely convinced a more 'responsible' reality TV ecosystem is what they really want.
*Names have been changed to protect some people's identities