‘Theatre of cruelty’: has the reality TV bubble burst?

The era of reality TV has seen countless viewers tuning into shows such as “Big Brother” and birthed household names, brands and sponsorships. 

But after years of headline-grabbing on-screen exploits by would-be and established stars alike, latest rating figures suggest the genre’s popularity may be in terminal decline. The return of the latest series of “Love Island” on ITV2 was watched live by 1.3 million people – more than a million down on the last summer launch. 

The steep drop follows a steady decline in the show’s popularity in recent years, amid growing concern about the real-life impacts of reality TV. So do the likes of “Love Island” still have a place in 2023, asked The Independent’s culture reporter Isobel Lewis,or have they “finally given us the ick?”

‘Theatre of cruelty’

Debate about show producers’ duty of care to the people involved in reality TV has been growing since former “Love Island” presenter Caroline Flack took her own life in 2020.

As problematic ethical issues surrounding the show “spilled over the villa’s walls and out into the real world”, said Lewis in The Independent, it became increasingly clear that “the fun wasn’t as harmless as it seemed”. Charities joined in warnings about gaslighting and emotional abuse, both on screen and on social media feeds about participants. 

Reality TV is “brain-rotting at best”, warned author and cultural commentator Iona David in The Guardian. The genre “can negatively affect the societal code of acceptable behaviour” and “at worst, it is lethal”.

Britain’s reality shows, in particular, are a “theatre of cruelty”, said The New York Times after “The Jeremy Kyle Show”  was pulled from ITV in 2019 following the death of a guest who was humiliated on air. These programmes are “designed to demonise” and “make us despise” those who take part, the paper argued, but “someone had to die” for action to be taken.

In the wake of such scandals, ITV and the BBC have vowed to take their duty of care more seriously. Measures introduced to safeguard the latest “Love Island” contestants include social media trainer, psychological support and behaviour and relationship training. Participants are also banned from banned using social media during the series to shield themselves and their families from online abuse.

Questions remain about whether enough has been done, however.

Viewers once yearned for “gory spectacles of humiliation and occasionally violence”, said Sirin Kale on Vice last year. But as they have “lost their taste for blood”, show producers have “faced a seemingly irreconcilable tension: between making a show entertaining, and making it ethical”.

As producers struggle to win back audiences, the age of the reality TV superstar may already be drawing to a close.

Last year’s “Love Island” winner Ekin-Su Cülcüloğlu secured a deal worth a rumoured £1 million with fashion brand Oh Polly after appearing on the show. But the Daily Mail reported earlier this year that the reality star had been dropped, because the partnership “wasn’t working”.

 “Gone are the days of the million pound Islander,” brand and culture expert Nick Ede told the paper

‘An evolution’

Although reality TV shows such as  “Love Island” are suffering ratings decline, some newcomers to the genre are flourishing. 

Reality competition series “The Traitors” was applauded as “the most exquisite reality TV of the year” by The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson after debuting in December. The show “feels like a revival of the early, more innocent days” of the genre, she wrote.

Later this year, perhaps the most famous reality TV show ever, “Big Brother”, will return in a highly anticipated ITV reboot. The show “laid the foundations” for the genre, said Gwilym Mumford in the same paper. And the new series could be the “antidote to many of the genre’s current issues”. 

Despite these many ongoing problems, said Kale on Vice, “it’s unlikely we’ll see the end of reality TV”. This type of entertainment is “too profitable, too sprawling, too entrenched”.

“What we’ll see instead,” she predicted, “is an evolution of the genre into something kinder, less exploitative, and more resonant with our progressive, mental-health aware times”.