Should brands exercise caution when associating with reality TV shows now the UK government is investigating how participants are treated during and after they are in the spotlight?
Reality TV was put under the microscope this week when the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) launched a reality TV review to learn whether broadcasters are "demonstrating their duty of care to the people whose personal lives are being exposed”. This was following the deaths of guests who appeared on ITV’s flagship shows Jeremy Kyle Show and Love Island in the last year.
The latest season of Jeremy Kyle Show on ITV reportedly pulled an average of one million viewers an episode - a strong average for a daytime broadcast. However, the broadcaster's chief executive Carolyn McCall permanently axed it from screens last week following the death of guest Steve Dymond shortly after an unaired appearance where he was branded a love cheat failing an on-screen polygraph test.
This prompted opinions across the media spectrum although "exploitation" was a common theme. The Telegraph said that the “trashy, embarrassing and exploitative” show gave audiences what they wanted. Mark Brown writing in The Guardian made the point that it was “exploitative. But it made working-class people visible”.
As this has been happening, ITV's popular reality dating programme Love Island was also criticised by fans, media and the DCMS following the deaths of two former contestants. Critics have suggested the show’s bosses failed in their mental healthcare procedures both when the show was on air and after filming stopped. ITV has made efforts to offer more support in the coming series.
The DCMS committee chair Damian Collins said ITV “made the right decision to permanently cancel the Jeremy Kyle Show” but stressed the importance of an independent review to ensure participants in reality TV shows receive the proper care. Programmes like The Jeremy Kyle Show "risk putting people who might be vulnerable on to a public stage at a point in their lives when they are unable to foresee the consequences, either for themselves or their families," he said.
“With an increasing demand for this type of programming, we’ll be examining broadcasting regulation in this area – is it fit for purpose?”
The brands associated with these programmes will be watching closely.
In the case of the Jeremy Kyle show, Sun Bingo was brought on board as a sponsor last year as a replacement to previous partners Wink Bingo, Foxy Bingo, Cheeky Bingo and Gala Bingo. The Sun offered no comment on the show's cancellation although a source familiar with the deal said, “things have been happening very fast and we’re yet to work out what happens next”.
Meanwhile, Love Island’s not been without its issues having been pilloried for “promoting unrealistic body image standards through the show and the advertising around it”. Its new lead sponsor for the 2019 season, Uber Eats and sources close to the deal, offered no comment when approached by The Drum.
Back in March, The Sun reported that a total of 38 deaths had been linked to reality TV around the world since 1986. According to the tabloid's figures, this by no means appears to be a recent issue. However, brands have more choice than ever before to reach mass audiences - it may well be they no longer willing to risk the dangers that come with the format.
‘Holding TV to the highest standards’
Lindsey Clay, chief executive of trade body Thinkbox, said that steps are being swiftly taken by TV bosses to ensure the “highest standards” are met moving forwards.
“This is a horrible tragedy and the public outcry is understandable. TV has always been held to the highest standards by regulators and viewers, and the reaction shows how seriously those standards are taken, and how swiftly broadcasters act to maintain them. The episode in question has come after the show has had 14 years on air,” she said.
“Advertisers can trust that TV remains the safest and most effective environment for brands, and that broadcasters, together with the regulators, will continue to ensure this remains the case.”
James Elliott, head of AV at media buying agency Bountiful Cow, said media agencies must also take on more responsibility for advising clients on their involvement with reality TV shows. “As media agencies, we act as human custodians of our clients brand, while the TV industry prides itself on creating high value commissioned content.
“In the case of Jeremy Kyle, while the content was controversial it wasn’t toxic, until recent events.
"While the numbers would have continued to be tempting to continue the show, those of us that truly take the ‘care to craft’ our client’s AV campaigns would have quickly advised clients to consider the potential effect on their brand's perception. Hopefully, there would have been enough of us acting in this way for ITV to have realised that the full commercial value of Jeremy Kyle was no longer being delivered… but I’m not so sure."
Anthony Clifton, media and marketing consultant at ACC Limited, said that reality TV formats have been "treading a dangerous path for too long since the earliest days of Big Brother back in 2000". They will need to "display greater responsibility as mental health continues to rise up the social agenda". Stripping the "toxic" from shows like Jeremy Kyle may threaten to lessen their appeal, however.
For brands, the questions are most likely to appear on the sponsorship side. "It's one thing following the ratings with spot advertising, it's another nailing the brand's logo to the proverbial mast at such sensitive times. Marketers will be keeping media lawyers busy to ensure the broadcaster contracts are brand safe."
Clifton concluded: "That said, the challenge is far more manageable through a broadcaster than achieving brand safety via say online programmatic or social advertising, where an advertiser can find themselves wrapped around a neo-nazi YouTube channel or content equally as unsavoury."
Mihir Haria-Shah, head of broadcast at Total Media noted that while linear viewing figures are falling, sport and reality TV shows. like ITV's I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here continue to deliver. "It has which has been running for over 13 years and still hits highs in ratings – an episode is always one of the 20 most watched British TV episodes of the year.
"Reality TV shows are addictive, and with the rise in social conversation around TV, people don’t want content spoiled for them by those who have already seen the results. This doesn’t just apply to reality TV – think Game of Thrones.
"From a behavioral planning perspective, reality TV is a great example of a format that can get huge volumes of bums in seats."
Brands and sponsors have to juggle reality TV's reach against brand safety concerns. "ITV has demonstrated to media buyers, including us, that it does take the mental health of their contestants seriously, but there is definitely a question around if this translates to shows such as Jeremy Kyle."
"Overall, ITV is taking the right step, and axing one of its biggest daytime shows on the back of this case is a further demonstration that they are looking to protect vulnerable people, even if it affects revenue.”
ITV declined to comment on this article beyond McCall’s statement.