Reality Television takes real people and real events and creates some form of entertainment out of this reality. Shows such as, the Jeremy Kyle show and Benefits street are classic, well known examples of reality TV, however some critics have found other terms to use, such as tabloid trash and docu-soaps. The main concern of this criticism is that these shows are exploitative and that they take the situations of struggling families and people and make entertainment out of their suffering. The term that would be used to then group these shows together, is poverty porn. Lamb (2016) describes this as a distance between what is being viewed and the audience and the unethical purpose of these kinds of TV shows. Both the Jeremy Kyle show and Benefits street, with their individual critiquing titles could be called examples of poverty porn however, Lorenzo & Blitvich (2013) discuss how Reality Television is difficult to categorize as a genre and instead labels it as a discourse. They mention how the many different styles of RTV such as, focus on ordinary people, voyeurism, audience participation and stimulation of real life, have different communicative purpose and so each style is in a way a separate genre. Therefore, when we now look at the Jeremy Kyle show and Benefits streets and view how there labeling as poverty porn affects society, we need to consider them as almost separate entities.
The Jeremy Kyle show began in 2005 and for sixteen seasons it was ITV’s most popular show. IT feature host, Jeremy Kyle, who attempts to resolve personal issues between guests who come on the show. The frequent use of a lie detector to prove or disprove innocence is a common tool on the show and is often the clinching moment when a truth is revealed. Often the show checks in with guests to see how they are doing after the show, sometime in the future. Very recently the suicide of a guest of the show is being investigated and ITV is being pressured to pull the show (Doward 2019) Which brings us around to our question, of the effects of these diminutive titles in regards to RTV. Lamb (2016) makes note of the particular ways in which camera, setting and narration are evidence of RTV being considered more than trash TV. The way in which these particular devices are used are to garden sympathy, to tell a wider story and to educate. Using Cathy come home as an example we can begin to see that there is more to the genre or discourse than simple entertainment. But is this true about Jeremy Kyle? You don’t need to find a peer reviewed journal article to work out what most people consider RTV to be. Low brow, simple entertainment, but Hill (2014) discusses the embedded nature of RTV and breaks down the millions of dollars spent on each show and each season of each show. Jeremy Kyle ran for sixteen seasons before this current controversy. So what does it say about society when its called poverty porn yet obviously consumed in such massive quantity?
Perhaps we start to see a dispassionate audience. Who criticizes the show, but perhaps gains some form of reflection, where they see an us and a them and are happy that they are not the us?
Benefits street was a Channel four documentary series about the lives of the people living on Turner street. A highly controversial show, that some call exploitative and others exposing to the poor lives led by the people on Turner street. Lamb (2016) details that the first season of benefits street was the most successful show on Britain’s channel four. This then creates the problem in deciding how we determine the societal impact on the titling of these shows as poverty porn. Because they are consumed on such a scale, it must mean that there is an almost guilty pleasure obtained from viewing these shows. According to a Guardian article in July of this year, four million people are trapped in deep poverty. Living well below the breadline. This has been blamed on everything from budget cuts to the growing divide between rich and poor (Butler 2019) Over fifty new RTV shows were launched in March alone this year (Dehnart) We can call these shows poverty porn, especially the ones which film the lives of the impoverished, but perhaps justify our indulgence by saying that what we are doing is bringing awareness to an issue. This is what was used as a justification for the making of Benefits street (Lamb 2016) But the issues, clearly have not gone away and are arguably getting worse. But, we are still watching these shows.
So what does that say about society? I would argue that there is a clear need by people to view the lives and challenges of others. That the chance to place ourselves above people in society, compare our lives against theirs is unmissable. That is not to say however that there are not examples of RTV that do help people or to even say that the way in which the shows are created, as in the cinematic styles used, is not done without intention. We all watch these shows for a reason. We all also seem to rail against them as exploitative trash. My summary would be that there is a need to watch, that reality Television is a sort of guilty pleasure. As we can see that people critique these shows, however they still clearly watch them.
Lamb, B. (2016). Cathy come off benefits: A comparative ideological analysis of Cathy Come Home and Benefits Street. Journalism and Discourse Studies, (2), pp.1-21
Lorenzo-Dus, N., & Blitvich, P. G. (2013). Discourse approaches to the study of reality television. Real Talk: Reality Television and Discourse Analysis in Action, pp.8-41. doi:10.1057/9781137313461.0009
Doward, J (2019) Family of Jeremy Kyle ‘suicide’ guest demand ITV files’ release: Retrieved https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/oct/06/family-of-jeremy-kyle-suicide-guest-demand-itv-files-release
Hill, A (2014) Reality TV and Key ideas in Media Studies: London, England: Taylor& Francis Group
Dehnart, A (n.d) Spring 2019 reality TV schedule and guide. Retrieved October, 31, 2019 from https://www.realityblurred.com/realitytv/2019/03/spring-2019-reality-tv-schedule-and-guide/
Butler, P (2019) More than 4m in UK are trapped in deep poverty, study finds:Retrieved https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jul/29/uk-deep-poverty-study-austerity