Reality TV Prioritizes Profit Over Participants’ Well-Being

On February 15, Caroline Flack, an English television and radio presenter, was found dead in her home. Her death was reported as a suicide, and right away, as with any tragedy, people began to search for an explanation, with many people pointing to Flack’s long involvement with the reality TV industry. She had been a presenter on many reality shows, including The X Factor, a British music competition reality show, and Love Island, a British dating competition reality show.

As a public figure, Flack was already considered fair game for both news media and social media, and she was tyrannized by the media more or less throughout her whole career. Just a few months before her death, she was arrested for the alleged assault of her boyfriend, leading to a media frenzy in which she was portrayed very negatively.

I personally believe that Flack’s suicide had a lot less to do with her participation in reality TV and a lot more to do with the media’s treatment of her. That being said, her death has sparked debate about the reality show she was most recently connected to, Love Island, and the reality TV industry as a whole.

Flack is not the only person with connections to Love Island to have died — two former contestants on the show have also committed suicide. Even if Love Island can’t be the only cause or even the main cause of these deaths, still, three suicides linked to reality TV begs the question — should we be examining this seemingly innocent source of lowbrow entertainment a little more closely?

We have certainly let reality TV infiltrate our lives quickly, and without much caution on our part. Dance Moms was the first reality show I ever watched. I remember being enthralled by YouTube compilations of Abby Lee screaming at her eight-year-old dancers for forgetting their choreography or for complaining about being tired. Even as I watched with rapt attention, I had a nagging feeling that it was somehow wrong for me to enjoy watching these moments.

I still get this faint sense of wrongness to this day, whenever I watch any kind of reality TV. It’s clear that the producers intentionally capitalize on the emotional turmoil being experienced by the people on these shows, with little regard to how it affects them as individuals.

Love Island, the reality show Caroline Flack hosted, is a clear example of the way the producers sacrifice the mental health and emotional wellbeing of the show’s participants in favor of creating drama that will boost viewership. The contestants on Love Island live isolated in an island villa under round-the-clock surveillance. They compete for a cash prize by forming partnerships with other contestants.

Contestants who aren’t able to find a partner, or who are voted out by the audience, are eliminated. The combination of isolation, judgment from the public, and the fear of social ostracization seem like a recipe for a lot of unhappiness for the participants.

One would think that an audience wouldn’t enjoy watching other people suffer like this. Yet, Love Island is one of the most popular reality TV shows today, with millions of enthusiastic devotees. Reality TV is, in a small way, a failure of humanity’s will. As hard as it is to admit, we all have a little part of us that wants to see others hurt, maybe because it makes us hurt less or maybe just because it makes us feel relieved that we’re not that person. By creating reality TV and by watching reality TV, we’re giving in to the urge to take pleasure from other people’s pain.

On a small scale, this isn’t a big deal. But if we all grow accustomed to consuming media that makes a spectacle of people’s lowest moments, we risk creating a culture that dehumanizes people by turning their feelings and their lives into commodities.

This is the type of world Caroline Flack lived in as a reality TV host. Unless we carefully consider the cultural implications of what we use for entertainment, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more people in this industry suffering from mental health issues.