How low can it go?
Reality shows may be setting new standards in offensive behaviour but they’re here to stay, writes Darren Devlyn
REALITY TV — it’s no longer a question of its survival, but how low it can possibly go. There’s community outrage over the appalling antics (pictured right) of contestants on the Australian edition of Ladette to Lady, in which the girls are seen binge-drinking, projectile-vomiting, stripping and relieving themselves in public.
Then there’s British series Boys and Girls, causing uproar because it sends children as young as eight into a Big Brother-style house to fend for themselves.
Violence has erupted between the boys, including one who pointed a knife at another.
You won’t hear any bleating about the horrors of reality TV from Peter Bazalgette, who was the London-based chief creative officer of Big Brother’s production company, Endemol.
Bazalgette has an estimated $20 million in the bank and is regarded as one of the world’s biggest players in the reality genre.
His great-grandfather was the civil engineer responsible for building London’s sewer systems and ridding the city of the ‘‘Great Stink’’ of 1858. His critics say Bazalgette has helped reverse the flow.
In his book Billion Dollar Game, Bazalgette warned reality TV’s opponents: ‘‘The genre is here to stay.
‘‘The bad formats — too tacky or derivative — fail. The good ones command valuable audiences and continue to do so.
‘‘I like to entertain and to provoke. I’m a fishwife at heart.’’
Big Brother might have disappeared from Australian screens, but reality TV will thrive while it rates with viewers and remains comparatively cheap to produce.
Drama production comes in at between $450,000 and $1 million per hour. Reality shows carry far less risk for networks because they can be churned out at a fraction of the cost.
Critics say reality TV is offensive, superficial and makes celebrities out of people who rose from the shallow end of the gene pool.
It’s also constantly accused of putting its contestants through ritual humiliation, then dumping them in an emotionally scarred state to get on with their lives.
Boxing show The Contender, designed to find a champion fighter, was rocked when, after being eliminated, one of the contestants, Najai ‘‘Nitro’’ Turpin, 23, committed suicide.
The show’s producer, Mark Burnett, said: ‘‘Turpin’s life was complicated and elimination from the reality show played no part in his death.’’
The Swedish reality show, Expedition: Robinson was under the spotlight when it was alleged a contestant ended his life after being voted off the show.
Then there was the death of a 17-year-old contestant from reality show The Colony. The girl was found dead in woods near her home in Yorkshire.
The show’s producer expressed deep sorrow over the death but was riled by speculation the show could have played some part in the tragedy.
‘‘Her family does not feel the loss had anything to do with the production,’’ the producer said. ‘‘She was a teenager who had problems. To connect this (death) to the show is, I think, quite puerile.’’
Australia’s Next Top Model was panned resoundingly when judge Charlotte Dawson described a pair of size-10 teenage models wearing bikinis as ‘‘more jelly botty than Botticelli’’.
Melbourne psychologist Dr Janet Hall worries about the impact of putdowns on reality-show contestants and is deeply concerned about how contestants cope with eviction.
The experience of being dismissed and immediately sent home from a show, Hall says, has the potential to leave contestants feeling ‘‘depressed, used and invalidated’’.
She says it’s irresponsible for shows such as Ladette to Lady to use binge-drinking, offensive and anti- social behaviour for viewer entertainment.
‘‘It’s an insult to the public that we are presented with this muck and a worry to those of us with sensibilities,’’ Hall adds.
‘‘Next thing we’ll be back to knitting women watching at the guillotine.’’
KAREN Dewey, executive producer of the Aussie Ladette to Lady, is staunch in her defence of the show.
‘‘They (UK producers who worked on the show) called and said our girls were outrageously bad, out of control and hard to handle,’’ Dewey says of the ladettes’ behaviour in the early stages of production.
‘‘It (show) was all part of trying to get some structure into these girls’ lives. You get very involved with these girls (as a producer) and are so fond of them. Some of these girls have tried so hard — girls who have had no opportunities in life whatsoever. They rocked up to auditions and said, ‘please give me a chance, I want some structure in life, I’ve never had a mother or female influence in life’.’’
How does Dewey feel about criticism that the show serves no useful purpose to contestants because the eviction process simply spits those out who struggle to conform.
‘‘We take our duty of care with these girls very seriously,’’ Dewey says.
‘‘To have this kind of reality show experience on the other side of the world (the ladettes were sent to Egglestone finishing school north of London) . . . some of the girls make remarkable changes in their lives.
‘‘They are trying to change and we want to support them in keeping on that track.
‘‘The evidence is there to prove that (the show can play a part in helping girls improve their lives).’’
Contestant Nicole Mitchell, 20, had been working as a stripper when she auditioned for the show. She reveals she needed a ‘‘10-drink minimum’’ before she could strip and the show features footage of her at ‘‘work’’, pushing her breasts into the face of a club patron.
When it came to filming the show, the trouble started for Mitchell and the seven other ladettes before they’d even arrived in the UK.
It was reported they behaved like crass vulgarians during their flight from Dubai to Newcastle, England.
Mitchell, however, says there was no encouragement from producers to behave badly. Messing up, she says, came naturally.
‘‘It was all real (not manufactured for the show),’’ says Mitchell, who says Ladette to Lady has prompted her to ditch stripping to enrol in a horticulture course.
‘‘It (show) opened my eyes to what life offers . . . everyone is so proud and happy with the way I came back.
‘‘I always thought what I was doing in the past wasn’t right to fit into normal society.
‘‘I couldn’t picture myself going back to my old job.
‘‘When I grew up I didn’t have it (role models). I’ve never experienced it (people trying to help her) before in my life.
‘‘I grew up in foster care. I was moved around a lot. They (show’s instructors Rosemary Shrager and Gill Harbord) were amazing.’’
reality-TV guru Peter Bazalgette. Melbourne clinical psychologist Dr Janet Hall.