The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, November 16, 2009


Reality Television Isn’t Real But Far Too Often Deadly and Devastating

Ryan Jenkins, 32, hung himself from a coat rack in a Canadian hotel room after murdering his swimsuit model wife, Jasmine Fiore, in a jealous rage, mutilating her body, stuffing it in a suitcase, and tossing it in a Buena Park California dumpster.

Paula Goodspeed, 30, intentionally overdosed on a prescription drug while sitting in her car in front of the Los Angeles home of her Hollywood idol.

Kelli McGee, 30s, a native of Texas, “went all to pieces” and took a fatal overdose of pills and alcohol when her sister, Deleese Williams, learned Kelli had made unkind comments about her appearance – Williams suffers from a deformed jaw, droopy eyelids and crooked teeth – at the coaxing of others. McGee left behind two small children that her sister is now raising.

James Terrill, 37, a single father from Georgetown Kentucky, apparently unable to handle financial and parenting issues, called local police from a cemetery, threatening to shoot himself. After authorities spent an hour attempting to talk him out of it, Terrill made good on his threat.

Simon Foster, 40, of England started his downward slide when his wife, Jane, left him for her lesbian lover, taking the couple’s two young children with her. She subsequently divorced him. Foster then lost his job and ended up homeless. Police found him dead in a Brighton hotel room, having consumed excessive quantities of methadone and alcohol.

Sinisa Savija, 34, of Sweden threw himself under a train after an embarrassing experience left him “deeply depressed and agonized.” His widow, Nermina, said Savija felt he could not go on living as he had been too thoroughly “degraded as a person.”

Tania Saha, 21, of India swallowed poison after an acutely devastating rejection. She apparently brought a bottle of poison with her so as not to waste any time if the response was as negative as it turned out to be.

Tom Sparks, 33, a recent graduate of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, complained of knee pain and shortness of breath after some moderate exertion. He was taken to a local hospital, where doctors eventually diagnosed he had suffered a stroke and was still bleeding within his brain. After transfer to Cedars Sinai Medical Center, surgeons operated on him several times but ultimately decided there was too much brain damage to save him. Sparks married two months earlier and had just returned from a European honeymoon.

All of the cases above are tragic in their own ways but one of them is different from the rest – can you guess which?

The obvious answer may seem to be the last one, as Sparks was the only person not to die by his own hand. The correct answer is actually the first case, although the fact that Jenkins is the only known murderer in the group is not the reason. While Jenkins, like all of the other people mentioned, was once a contestant on a reality television show, his death was the only one not likely a direct cause from his appearance on television or the immediate aftermath of it.

Goodspeed, a huge fan of Paula Abdul, failed to make it onto American Idol after a disastrous audition. McGee’s sister, scheduled to appear on Extreme Makeover, found herself cut at the last minute when her recovery time did not mesh well with the show’s schedule. Terrill appeared on the show Supernanny, which highlighted his inability to manage his out-of-control children.

Foster became a national laughingstock after appearing on the British version of Wife Swap. Savija was a contestant on Expedition, the forerunner of Survivor, where he was the first person voted off the island. Saha experienced rejection as a contestant for Fatafati, the Indian version of American Idol. Sparks was running an obstacle course on the show Wipeout when he first became ill.

The above represent extreme examples but the majority of reality television show appearances are negative, as the online Hollywood news site TheWrap documents in a series of articles beginning in May and running through August 2009. Mental-health workers have discovered that reality television competitors, including those who win, frequently suffer severe and often long-lasting psychological trauma as a result.

The first source of trauma is the often sweatshop-like conditions during filming. An investigative piece by the New York Times reveals that, sans union representation, contestants have no workplace rules governing meal breaks, long workdays, or minimum time off between shoots. Producers commonly sequester contestants, encourage them to drink large amounts of alcohol, deprive them of sleep, and push them past the point of exhaustion.

“The bread and butter of reality television is to get people into a state where they are tired, stressed and emotionally vulnerable,” explains Mark Andrejevic, author and Associate Professor of Communications Studies at the University of Iowa. “That helps make them more amenable to the goals of the producers and more easily manipulated.”

Whatever (stressed) human nature misses, producers are experts at filling in the chinks, carefully scrutinizing contestants in early episode to spot positive and negative archetypes. After that, simple editing out objectionable and sympathetic moments respectively is often the only thing needed to turn complex human beings into one-dimensional heroes and villains.

The second source of trauma is a feeling of abandonment once filming completes.

“Reality shows open wounds which no one can suture, so after your appearance you’re left to bleed to death,” says Miami psychologist Doctor Jamie Huysman. “The producers don’t care about the players, they care about the sponsors, who want confrontations and meltdowns – they love it when people cry or are browbeaten. That’s why the highest-rated shows are the ones where people get crushed emotionally.”

“[Contestants] underestimate how much stress they can deal with, agrees Doctor Michelle Callahan. That stress is not limited to fellow contestants or game playing on the show. Contestants must deal with millions of strangers commenting on how much their portrayal on television annoyed, angered, or disgusted them. Overweight contestants have proven especially subject to pillorying as “fat” by viewers.

The popularity of reality television among television producers is obvious. The shows are extremely popular with audiences tired of over-formulaic sitcoms and action dramas yet are cheap to make, requiring virtually no scripts and usually fewer other creative inputs. So why do audiences flock to this type of programming?

Some theorize that increased distrust in government, media, Wall Street and other institutions over recent decades have caused ordinary people to seek out heroes within their midst. However, it seems more likely to me that the popularity of such shows is a combination of vicarious sharing in the instant wealth/fame achieved by a few winners and primarily guilty pleasure in watching the failures of the vast majority of contestants.

A study conducted several years ago by Steven Reiss and James Wiltz of Ohio State University and published in the journal Media Psychology asked television viewers what shows they watched the most as well as rating themselves on each of sixteen basic motives. Their method, based on evidence, assumes that people prefer television shows that stimulate the feelings they intrinsically value the most.

Reiss and Wiltz found the two hundred and thirty-nine viewers surveyed who identified themselves as heavy reality television watchers were significantly more likely to feel self-important and, to a lesser extent, more likely to feel vindicated, friendly, free of morality, secure, and romantic as compared with television watchers in general.

Other studies have found no consistent demographic similarities among reality television fans with the exception of age group. Such shows are most popular with eighteen to twenty-four years olds, then begin losing popularity at a steady rate until they garner only one-eight the number of viewers among seventy-five years old and up.

The lion’s share of responsibility for understanding and dealing with the likely consequences from appearing on a reality television show rests with individuals choosing to compete on them. However, the systemic nature of the problem also argues for better screening among networks and producers.

Doctor Geoffrey White, who works as a therapist and consultant within the industry, argues against placing too much reliance on forms and interviews, where it is usually easy for most people to make a good impression. He believes placing potential contestants in two or three mock situations with other people and observing their behaviors to detect unstable personalities is a superior approach.

Reality television is not nearly as “real” as most viewers assume it to be. However, far too many contestants are finding its fun and games with a chance for fabulous cash and prizes to be an all-too-deadly undertaking. The popularity of these shows continues to mystify me personally. Yet even if there is no accounting for taste, common decency demands protecting participants from the worst and most dangerous of the exploitations currently forced upon them.

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