Week 11: Reality TV

What effects do you think that reality television has on society when programmes such as the Jeremy Kyle Show are labelled as ‘tabloid trash’ and docu-soaps such as Benefits Street are called ‘poverty porn’?


Reality TV has become one of the most, if not the most, influential television genres currently on air. The dominance of it in the numbers of viewers it draws, and the wide range of shows that it has produced, means that it has become ingrained into humanity as a favored pastime and something that shapes our societies views and values accordingly. However, the negative views that society has of some of these shows, such as the Jeremy Kyle Show and Benefits Street, has led to many speaking out against the negative impacts these shows have on the individuals involved and the people who watch them.

One of the key draws of Reality TV is how the ‘average Joe’ is now a part of the televised story, allowing for more relatability and enjoyment from something that involves real people; no matter how staged it actually is. “Ordinary people are now welcomed on screen, providing subject matter, “case studies,” points ofidentification, and sources of disobedience and conflict.” Ouellette (2008). It allows the watcher to either have increased sympathy for someone, but also permits them to have their personal biases confirmed through the medium. The shows of this genre aim to get greater emotional responses from their viewership, and don’t care if its good or bad.

The Jeremy Kyle Show was first aired in 2005, and for the mainstay of its content focused on attempting to resolve conflicts between couples, friends and family members in front of an audience, supported by dubious scientific methods. The way it portrayed many of its guests as the cause of all their problems led to concerns about the mental impact on them. The way in which problems such as substance abuse were displayed in the show meant that people were often “held fully responsible and blamed for their substance use, resulting problems, and failure of treatment” Atkinson (2018). This meant that the environment that the show created was one of a blame culture, where those who were in difficult situations were entirely responsible for that situation and therefore there is little to no sympathy from the audience and wider public for these individuals that are often caught up in endless spirals of poverty and discrimination, which is then multiplied by the microscope that the wider public is placing on them. Many people in the wider public had their personal beliefs about ‘certain people’ confirmed by these participants. Shows like this promoted a more judgmental attitude towards those in the lower end of the income scale and those who struggles with addictions, which in turn meant they didn’t receive as much support.

The show Benefits Street was first shown in 2014 and documented the lives of  several residents of a road in Birmingham, all of whom were living on the benefit. The brutal nature of these peoples lives, and particularly the way in which the show documented the repeated crimes that they performed. The show was accused of being ‘poverty porn’, and those involved in its creation were threatened and insulted for their work. However, the biggest impact that the show had was in terms of its ability to spark a conversation on “the future of social security [which] continues to be debated in the
mainstream media” Lamb (2016). It caused a large amount of debate around social issues like the benefit and was even mentioned in the House of Commons, at the center of British parliament.

While both of these show did garner a large amount of hatred from the public, they also created a forum for discussions around certain issues, though they often had a negative impact on those they had participate on the show as they emphasized the negatives far more than the positives to garner more attention.


Atkinson, A. M., & Sumnall, H. (2018). Neo-liberal discourse of substance use in the UK reality TV show, The Jeremy Kyle Show. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, 1–12. doi: 10.1080/09687637.2018.1498456

Ouellette, L. & Hay, J. Better living through reality TV: television and post-welfare citizenship. (2008). Choice Reviews Online46(03). doi: 10.5860/choice.46-1307

Lamb, B. Cathy Come Off Benefits: A comparative ideological analysis of Cathy Come Home and Benefits Street. (2016). Journalism and Discourse Studies, Issue 2.

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