The reality of reality TV
4 December 2019
Reality TV has exploded in recent years, with viewer demand spawning an ever growing number of cooking competitions, renovation competitions, dancing competitions, dating shows and even shows where participants marry complete strangers.
Reality TV shows draw their viewership and notoriety from making everyday people interesting.
This often requires a combination of placing participants in difficult or high pressure situations, and then using producer influence and selective editing to portray an interesting or scandalous narrative that will attract viewers.
Alongside this, social media and online news organisations provide forums to discuss the reality show contestants.
However, recently there has been a greater focus on the impact these factors are having on the reality show contestants themselves
Last month, Nicole Prince took legal action in Australia against Channel 7 for the ordeal she went through on a reality TV show. Prince appeared with her friend Fiona Taylor in the 2017 season of House Rules, a home renovation show. They were each paid $500 a week plus a $500 allowance during filming.
Prince claimed she was bullied and harassed by other contestants who disliked Prince and Taylor because they were shown selectively edited footage that portrayed the pair in a negative light.
Prince claimed that the bullying was aggravated and encouraged by the producers, who isolated the pair from the other contestants. When Prince complained to Channel 7, she was threatened that she and Taylor would be portrayed negatively on the show.
Following this, an episode was aired that portrayed Prince and Taylor as bullies, resulting in online abuse on the Channel 7 Facebook page. Subsequently, Prince has been unable to obtain work and she has been informed that this was because of how she was portrayed as a bully.
A NSW Workers Compensation Commission arbitrator held that Prince was an employee of Channel 7 when she was participating in the show, and that she was put in a "hostile and adversarial environment in the course of her employment".
He found that Channel 7 selectively edited footage to portray Prince in a negative light, did not delete negative comments brought to its attention on its own posts, and that "the breakdown in the applicant's relationship with other contestants, together with the impact of her portrayal on television and social media, in my view explains the onset of her psychological injury."
Channel 7 was ordered to pay compensation to Prince which has been yet to be set.
Experts have said that this verdict could have wider ramifications for the reality TV genre. Contestants on the Australian version of Married at First Sight have already indicated to the media that they were looking at launching their own challenges in light of the Prince ruling.
The psychological impact of reality TV can be severe, and was put in the spotlight in the last two years as UK media reported on three deaths of former reality TV show participants, resulting in a push in the UK towards better psychological care for contestants on such shows.
In New Zealand, the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 provides that a so called "PCBU" has primary responsibility for people's health and safety at work and must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of its "workers".
So could contestants on reality TV be considered workers?
The Act gives a wide definition of who is a worker. A worker is an individual "who carries out work in any capacity". The Act explicitly includes volunteers, provided the organisation knows they are working for them, the work is regular and ongoing, and is an integral part of the business or undertaking.
Even if a reality TV contestant were not being paid, they would likely still fall within the definition of a volunteer and be captured by the Act. Therefore steps must be taken to ensure their health and safety so far as reasonably practicable.
It is well established now that the risks to a person's health and safety can include their mental health. These implications on how reality TV shows could be cut are profound.
If it is foreseeable that a person's mental health could suffer from how a show is cut, then it is arguable that the show should be cut in such a way to minimise that risk. Similarly, if the show can avoid circumstances which may impact a person's mental health, those circumstances should be avoided.
Of course, taking the above ideas to their extremes, a somewhat boring programme would probably result.
These issues beg the question, to what extent do participants consent to the risks to their mental health? And to what extent can consent justify stressing contestants for our viewing pleasure?
Ultimately, consent carries little stock in health and safety law. However, health and safety law does recognise that some enterprises are more inherently risky than others. What is acceptable, and what steps ought to be taken, must be determined on a case by case basis.
Do reality TV shows take things too far and unreasonably risk the mental health of participants? Or are reality TV shows inherently risky and any effects on mental health are the price participants must pay?