Week Twelve: 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’?

The effects of reality television (RTV) on society can be identified through RTV shows such as The Jeremy Kyle Show (2005-2019) and Benefits Street (2014-2015). While RTV has allowed ‘ordinary’ people to appear on screens, it has also come at a price. The voyeuristic appeal of RTV allows viewers to see into the lives of others and pass judgement without ever having to interact with them personally. This allows the people RTV to become representative of all those in similar situations, which is concerning if the portrayal is largely negative. This can be seen by the audience reaction to the ‘poverty porn’ labelled Benefits Street.  Slade, Narro, and Buchanan (2014) acknowledge “society is nosey” in relation to RTV, but to the extent that we allow vulnerable members to be readily presented and further ostracised on national television. This is why exploitation is a constant concern in reality to RTV. This is especially common in shows like The Jeremy Kyle Show which rely heavily on participants being “feckless” and “incontinent” for popularity (Blitvich 2013). RTV can also be seen as accentuating division in society by focussing on right and wrong as opposed to the issue itself.    

Benefits Street is a prime example of a docu-soap RTV show referred to as ‘poverty porn’. The term ‘poverty porn’ is  “understood by the public as ‘reality TV programmes’ that document the daily lives of the unemployed urban poor living on housing estates” (Dahlgreen 2013, as cited in, Lamb 2016). Here the use of the word porn is not to do with anything sexual. It is about viewers being able to distance themselves those on-screen as well as their predicaments but are still consume it as entertainment. This raises concerns over exploitation, especially to already vulnerable members of society. 

It has been argued that a show like Benefits Street was produced as a social awareness device, bringing voiceless or underrepresented people into the mainstream. However, it has received more criticism as a ratings (and profit) motivated enterprise rather than social. This is why the term ‘poverty porn’ has been applied. Lamb (2016) discusses the focus Benefits Street puts on the individual and their daily decision making, while largely ignoring the context that put them there in the first place. This creates what Lamb (2016) calls a ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor binary. The families on Benefits Street are often framed as lazy and irresponsible perpetuating the negative stereotype of those on the benefit. The issue here is that they limit addressing the wider social implications that have created this situation, and instead find and use outrageous characters and personalities to draw in viewers. This does little to bring awareness to wider social implications of state of welfare in Britain, but instead uses beneficiaries as a marketing tool instead. This is why using the ‘poverty porn’ label is quite an accurate depiction as it is simplistic entertainment which fails to address the wider social context of those on welfare while using them to get ratings.

The Jeremy Kyle Show was one of the most popular RTV talk shows on national television and ran for sixteen seasons. The success of the show is undeniable, however, the methods used to garner such popularity are more questionable, leading to it gaining a ‘tabloid trash’ label. Cadwalladr (2008 as cited in Blitvich, 2013) summed up the show from the position that it is “a morbid and depressing display of dysfunctional people whose lives are in turmoil … a form of bear baiting which goes under the guise of entertainment.” (p. 267). The shows reliance on finding extreme or over-dramatic personalities, definitely questions the shows morals, but so does the facilitation of the show. Jeremy, the shows host often employs techniques of spectacular confrontation to draw out drama as well as using lie-detector and DNA tests to create a scenario of truth or lie, right or wrong to which he is an authority on the matter (Blitvich, 2013). This transfers into society by supporting that idea that there is only right and wrong. This removes the opportunity for discussions that lead to more understanding and constructive resolutions. Simplifying a problem down to who was right or wrong doesn’t even guarantee the matter is resolved. This is the issue with shows like The Jeremy Kyle Show being labeled as ‘tabloid trash’. It draws influences audiences and society to pay more attention to who is right and who is wrong, rather than addressing the root of the problem.


Blitvich, P. G. (2013). Real talk : Reality television and discourse analysis in action. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com

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

Slade, A. F., Narro, A. J., & Buchanan, B. P. (Eds.). (2014). Reality television : Oddities of culture. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com

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