Just as we’re hardwired to find the stimulating pleasure of alcohol and nicotine addictive, we’re geared to respond to the drama, conflict and sex of reality TV. Is it time we dropped the habit?
Reality TV as we know it today started with an island, and a suicide.
25 years ago, an eclectic group of people were hand-picked by a set of producers and sent to an “exotic” location overseas. They became contestants, competing in challenges that were sometimes silly (carrying eggs down a mountain without dropping them), and sometimes difficult (running obstacle courses; scavenging for food). After four days, the islanders would decide who, out of the group, would be eliminated. From the perspective of today, the whole thing seems simple, familiar, and even fairly quaint. Except for the fact that, four weeks after leaving the island, the first contestant to be eliminated was dead.
Sinisa Savija – one of 16 people recruited for Sweden’s 1997 programme Expedition Robinson, and one of the first people ever to take part in what would become known as ‘reality TV’ – stepped out in front of a high-speed commuter train two months before footage of him being rejected by his fellow islanders was aired. After returning from the show’s Malaysian filming location, “he became deeply depressed and agonised,” his wife Nermina later disclosed. “He felt degraded as a person and didn’t see any meaning in life.”
The thing that played on Sinisa Savija’s mind most, Nermina said, was the thought that the final edit would leave him publicly humiliated. “When he came back,” Nermina told the Swedish press, “he told me, ‘they are going to cut away the good things I did and make me look like a fool, to show that I was the worst and that I was the one that had to go.’”
It is a cruelly ironic twist of fate, then, that the publicity prompted by his suicide led the producers to edit Sinisa Savija out of Expedition Robinson almost entirely. He is only present for the first half of the first episode, and even then he is kept at the edges – a shadowy figure, barely there apart from the moment he’s ushered off the island. From a production standpoint, the move was a smart one. The scandal surrounding Savija’s suicide faded, and the buzz around Expedition Robinson got louder. By the season finale, the show was being watched by almost half of Sweden’s entire population. It was declared a resounding success. By 2000, six years after the format was first developed by British TV producer Charlie Parsons, the concept behind Expedition Robinson was launched in the United States, where – in another bit of cruel irony – it was given the title Survivor.
Of course, we all know what happened next. A new genre was born. Challenges, cameras and real people becoming contestants. A new millennium, and a new reality. And of course, two decades on, another island-based reality TV show is reaching its conclusion, ready to spit its contestants out into an altered reality, where they will become that much maligned and much-prized thing: a reality TV star. (If you repeat ‘reality’ enough times, does it lose all meaning?)
This is where it’s time for a confession. I have guzzled Love Island this season the same way I have guzzled drinks at parties or chain-smoked on holiday. In other words, voraciously and unthinkingly; refreshing the hashtag on social media and repeatedly searching “Ekin Su Davide” with the full force of an addictive personality. But then, just as the fallout from Casa Amor was igniting Twitter – one thousand Andrews saying one thousand times, “I sucked her tit or whatever” – I listened to the new Audible podcast Edge of Reality: The Story TV’s Too Scared to Tell.
In the series, investigative journalist Jacques Peretti traces the meteoric rise of reality TV, tracking how it started as TV networks’ cheap solution to “the FRIENDS problem” (ie. the rising cost of actors in smash-hit shows), and ended up shifting the parameters of culture and the meaning of celebrity. But, Edge of Reality is more than just a cultural overview, or the history of a messy, entangled entertainment genre. In many ways, the series is a plea: an admission of guilt and an urgent, affecting request for change. A demand that reality TV faces a reckoning. Sinisa Savija’s story opens the series, because Edge of Reality’s story – the one ‘TV’s too scared to tell’ – is of reality TV contestants being pushed over the brink. It is the story of how, far from being an exceptional case, Savija was the first of at least 40 recorded suicides linked to a reality TV show.
The entire series is shocking and compulsive (indeed, the podcast often replicates the dark emotional pull reality TV is famous for), but there are some standout moments of true, icy horror. In the very first episode, listeners meet Charlie Parsons – the TV producer who came up with the concept that would become Expedition Robinson, and later Survivor – and are offered a horrifying glimpse into the 00s spitballing sessions of young production staff, let loose to dream up the wildest, most boundary-pushing show formats imaginable. What if houses were built around overweight people, and the first person to lose enough weight to fit through the front door won? What if a giant net was strung underneath a bridge, catching anyone attempting to jump to their death and converting them into an on-camera ‘participant’? As Parsons admits, morality and human empathy were left at the door, in the service of seeking emotional extremes: shock and awe.
The term “shock and awe” is often used to describe a military tactic, also known as “rapid dominance”. This doctrine is based on the use of overwhelming power and spectacular displays of force, seeking to paralyse the enemy’s perception and understanding of events, and destroying their will to resist. Perhaps it seems extreme to liken game shows and trash telly to a highly controversial contemporary method of war, but we have to confront the facts. As Edge of Reality so deftly demonstrates, the reality TV machine has mushroomed into an overwhelmingly powerful industry – a spectacular ecosystem buttressed by the tabloid press, social media platforms, and market town Vodka-Revs – that feeds on conflict, and breeds casualties: 40 suicides, at least.
Svante Stockselius, chief of SVT Entertainment and the man responsible for importing Parsons’ island survival game to Sweden, spoke of how the shock of reality TV, in the early days, was in seeing something so radically different and new. “When average people are in the position to have to pick someone and say, ‘You must go,’ that is totally new in an entertainment show, and shocking,” he said. “You’re not used to seeing ordinary people in a situation like this – it’s kind of like a Peeping Tom.” Stockselius aptly described the uncanny, voyeuristic thrill this provoked: “‘How can I continue to look at this? I feel kind of embarrassed.’ But, you couldn’t stop.”
Now, of course, seeing ‘ordinary people’ on-screen, fighting and fucking and ganging up on each other, is no longer a novelty. So now, production staff have to spitball new methods and formats to shock, stun and hook the viewer, just as Parsons and his colleagues did 20 years ago. Looking at the ad revenue a single episode of Love Island nets for ITV, is it a stretch to suggest that, although ostensibly seeking to entertain, in reality, the programme’s purpose is to keep the viewer in a state of receptive paralysis, unable to resist, look away, or turn off?
“Watching Love Island has made me feel grubby, like waking up after a big night out with make-up caked on my face, head pounding, throat sore from smoking... but despite these feelings of guilty complicity, it’s clear the fault does not lie with the audience”
In its eight series run, four suicides have been linked to Love Island. Mike Thalassitis, who starred in season 3 in 2017, took his life in March 2019. Sophie Gradon, who starred in season 2 in 2016, took her life in June 2019. Her partner, Aaron Armstrong, did the same 20 days later. The following year, Caroline Flack was found dead in her home in Stoke Newington. An effort was made to improve the show’s aftercare package: more counselling sessions offered; more discussions about islanders’ mental health and wellbeing. But can this ever be enough? As episode 5 of Edge of Reality, “Screening in Crazy Conflict”, reveals, many of the elements of reality TV that may leave a contestant feeling “degraded as a person” are baked into the format. Viewing figures surge for eliminations and altercations, and, consequently, in an attempt to construct a ‘reality’ most likely to win attention, producers rig shows to teeter on the brink of open hostility.
This season of Love Island has proved no different. Episodes featuring fights and rampant misogyny might have prompted tidal waves of complaints to Ofcom about ‘toxic’ behaviour. On the flipside, episodes featuring lovey-dovey dates or light-hearted challenges cause viewing figures to drop. To paraphrase recently booted-out contestant Deji, it seems we don’t want peace, we want problems.
I usually hate the term ‘guilty pleasure’ for its snobby puritanism; the idea inherent in the phrase that some pleasures are sinful, requiring purging, cleansing and absolution. And yet, after listening to Edge of Reality, watching Love Island has made me feel grubby. Like waking up after a big night out with make-up caked on my face, head pounding, throat sore from smoking. I have the persistent feeling of having overdone it, of needing to detoxify. But despite these feelings of guilty complicity, it’s clear the fault does not lie with the audience. Just as we’re hardwired to find the stimulating pleasure of alcohol and nicotine addictive, we’re geared to respond to drama and conflict and sex; the dopamine and adrenaline surges provoked by blood, sweat and tears. Indeed, towards the end of his podcast, Peretti likens the modern reality TV machine to the 20th-century tobacco industry. Both, he suggests, are money-grabbing behemoths attempting to shift the blame onto the individual consumer, and away from those with the power and profits. Seen in this way, reality TV is also like another slick but essentially dirty game – that of Big Oil. And if that industry can teach us anything, it’s that a crisis cannot be solved by its architects, not while they have blood on their hands.