Reality television has many ethical question marks hanging over its short history, says Colette Sheridan , who puts the dark side of light entertainment under the spotlight
A CONTROVERSIAL film about the power of reality TV will be screened this afternoon at the Gate Cinema in the Cork French Film Festival. Game of Death questions if there will soon be onscreen death as reality television becomes more extreme to increase ratings. The film, directed by Christophe Nick and Thomas Bornot, was screened on French television in 2010 and sparked debates about morality and capitulation to authority figures.
The film is based on a 1963 scientific experiment by Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, who demonstrated that a majority of people would administer electric shocks to another person when encouraged by an authority figure.
Nick and Bornot recreate Milgram’s experiment as a TV game show: 80 participants are asked to follow horrific rules.
As well as the participants, there is a live audience and an attractive hostess. Despite the contestant, Jean-Paul’s howls of pain and pleas for mercy, the majority of the participants carry on. With no financial incentive, the point of the game is to ask Jean-Paul a series of questions.
The punishment for an incorrect answer is an electric shock, with the voltage increasing from 80 to 460 volts with each wrong answer.
Sixty-four of the 80 participants played until it became torture. Although they hated making Jean Paul suffer, the majority failed to resist orders from the authority figure.
As soon as the programme ended, the participants were told they had taken part in an experiment and that Jean-Paul, an actor, did not receive electric shocks.
All but three of the participants gave permission to be shown on the programme.
Nick says that watching the film is “fascinating.” The participants are following a basic instinct to obey authority. “What you see is ugly, but you watch it. It’s crazy, because when you start to play with this instinct, there is no limit. Two people died in the famous game, Survival, in Pakistan and Bulgaria. No one talks about this but it happened. Game of Death is an opportunity to think about the power of TV and our obedience. We think we are free in our minds, free to decide what we want.
“But in situations with an authority figure, we do what the authority wants. It’s the same story in our companies, our factories and our offices. We see people practising psychological violence (on others) but we don’t do anything about it.” Reality TV is “addictive. It can be ugly, dark and awful.”
Racism and bullying have been features of reality programmes such as Big Brother, which has been the subject of investigations by TV watchdogs and the police. Participants in the programme have been filmed having sex.
The first real sex scene on Irish TV occurred last month on the reality show, Tallafornia, when Nikita Murray and Phil Penny were filmed apparently getting it on under a duvet in the “score room”.
Kate Shanahan, a lecturer in journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology, says Tallafornia is difficult to watch.
“I don’t know whether this is because it’s about Irish people. I have some sympathy for the people involved, because they want to get career advancement, or whatever, out of it. But it’s meaningless because it’s so fake.
“In the UK, this kind of thing is slick as it’s a format that has been done a million times over. I know a lot of young people, including people I teach, that can’t watch Tallafornia. It’s a bit too close to the bone. Because it’s Ireland, the people in it are not going to end up being big stars. They’ll just end up being someone in a Dublin nightclub in ten years and people will come up to them, half-locked, and will ask, ‘weren’t you in Tallafornia?’ That’s as good as it’s going to get.”
Shanahan worries about the intensity of the bullying that is a feature of reality TV. She has worked with television producers who have experience of British reality shows.
“These producers are cold-hearted. They don’t have time to think about ethics. If the viewing figures are down, they rank up the programme to make it more exciting. That’s what happened with Shilpa Shetty (the 2007 Celebrity Big Brother contestant who was the victim of racist remarks from Jade Goody and others). I think the people who make reality television are cynical and exploitative and have lost all sense of morality. In the US, there have been suicides by people associated with reality confrontational programmes. There have been psychologists who have resigned from these programmes because there can be very vulnerable people on them,” she says. Shanahan says that in years to come the worst excesses of reality TV will be seen as the equivalent of the abuse stories that have emerged from Church and State institutions in Ireland.
RTÉ’s John Creedon, who won the reality show Fáilte Towers in 2008, says that in refusing to carry out orders imposed on him while in the hotel, he “bucked the trend of these kind of shows. I remember being brought into the diary room, where I had to nominate someone to be kicked off the show. I refused, saying I had never agreed to judge anyone.”
Creedon, who took part in the show to raise funds for Crumlin Children’s Hospital, where his infant granddaughter died, found it “very encouraging” that he won. I’m not a matinee idol or a pop star. You had the Michelle Heatons on the show. Yet the plain people of Ireland were with the big fellow from Cork. “It wasn’t so much an endorsement of me, but of the viewers,” he says.
When the current deputy mayor of Cobh, Sinead Sheppard, followed her dream of a singing career, she ended up on the RTÉ reality show, Popstars, in 2002. Her band, Six, enjoyed some success but after two-and-a-half years as a support act, it folded.
Looking back on her then 18-year-old self, Sheppard says: “At the time, there was no blue print for reality TV in Ireland. We went into it blindly. All we knew was that we’d have an opportunity to sing in front of Louis Walsh. I had an amazing time. It was a complete emotional rollercoaster. Everything was so heightened and unreal.
“I don’t dislike reality TV, and if I had my time over I wouldn’t change it. But it was crazy, living in a secret location. We were people who had never been away from home and were put into this house with cameras rolling 24/7.”
Sheppard says reality TV hopefuls are more aware now. “I think The Voice of Ireland is a good reality show because only talented people get onto the show. They’re auditioned beforehand, so you’re not seeing people that are really bad embarrassing themselves on telly.”
Live or die by reality TV, it has a compulsion for audiences and wannabes. It is the modern version of the Colosseum gladiator trials.
* Game of Death plus Q&A with Thomas Bornot, is at the Gate Cinema today at 4.15pm. www.corkfrenchfilmfestival.com.
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