Kim RIchards, Adrienne Maloof, Lisa VanderPump, and Taylor Armstrong of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills, which is currently dealing with the aftermath of a participant's suicide.
Kim RIchards, Adrienne Maloof, Lisa VanderPump, and Taylor Armstrong of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills, which is currently dealing with the aftermath of a participant's suicide. Isabella Vosmikova/Bravo
Unscripted television — now referred to as "reality" mostly so that people can put the word "reality" between appropriately skeptical quotation marks — has always been accused of being stupid, vapid, empty, and responsible for crowding out the good stuff that scripted television can accomplish.
Let's put that part aside.
Right now, the swelling chorus about this genre is not talking about long-term degradation of audience intelligence, but crises created for participants. What has put this on the front burner is the suicide of Russell Armstrong, the estranged husband of Taylor Armstrong, one of the women featured on Bravo's The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills. His collapsing marriage was a major storyline on the show, which has an entire upcoming season in the can in which he plays a role. Bravo has decided to air the season, but has announced that there has been some re-editing, and that they'll air a special so everyone can talk about their feelings about it — everyone except his estranged wife.
In the aftermath of this developing horror show, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a piece at Salon, and Andy Dehnart has published a feature in Playboy (which you really still can read for the articles, but be aware that your employer might not approve of the URL), about the potential hazards that can lie ahead when, as Matt Paxton of Hoarders says to Dehnart, "combine mental illness with entertainment."
As much as the purest solution (and the purist's solution) is to tell everyone to stop watching it entirely, any argument that it's unethical to watch entertainment that poses genuine risks to people would also take down football, boxing and the circus. That kind of entreaty may be justified, and can still be offered, but it will almost surely be ignored, and it's a bad idea to cling to it so fiercely that in the meantime, nothing else changes.
There is also, I'm sorry to say, no solution for people who want to watch The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills without guilt — and I say that as someone who, while I don't watch that one, has watched the New York version. If you want to watch some of this stuff, you have to live with the fact that it exploits emotionally charged situations and could easily cause psychological harm to people, whether it was responsible for what happened to Russell Armstrong or not. The amount of risk you can live with is up to you (and has been very much on my own mind), and you don't necessarily have to feel worse than a football fan, but yes — know what you're into.
But just as responsible sports teams can make responsible decisions about minimizing risks where they can, there are ways for shows that absolutely don't have to be so exploitative and potentially damaging — shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race and Project Runway and Top Chef and even American Idol and Deadliest Catch — to take their responsibilities to participants more seriously and to distinguish and brand themselves as the shows committed to existing on the do-less-harm end of the spectrum. How do you accomplish that?
With a voluntary, industry-adopted ethics code that would allow a show that wants to agree to specific measures that minimize (do not eliminate, but minimize) potential harm, and in return to be marketed as Not That Kind Of Show.
The fact that these measures would increase the costs of producing code-compliant shows is a feature, not a bug. You can spread some of the risks — which are currently dumped entirely on participants — to producers without making it unreasonably expensive to produce shows, and if a certain number of viewers decide they're going to favor code-compliant shows and a certain number of advertisers decide they're only going to advertise on code-compliant shows, some of those costs would be offset. It will ultimately be the responsibility of viewers and advertisers, in other words, to shop for ethical television the same way they might shop for ethically produced goods of any other kind, and to provide the financial incentives.
Meanwhile, everybody sleeps a little better. Just a little.
There would still be plenty of non-code shows — Jersey Shore isn't going to adopt any code of ethics, and its viewers aren't going to care — and plenty of networks to air them. But there are people who are not stupid, who don't love seeing people get hurt, who don't relish the idea of injury or emotional damage, who enjoy Survivor and Project Runway and would like to think basic protections are in place to protect people's well-being to the degree they can be.
So, the nitty-gritty: What would such a code contain? Well, let's draft one. Some of these provisions are probably pipe dreams, some are utterly obvious, and most are — in my opinion as a longtime viewer and someone who has a few friends who have actually been on these shows — completely achievable for the vast majority of mainstream shows without damage to the product. There are undoubtedly things I haven't thought of, so feel free to add your ideas in the comments. Again, nobody has to make their show this way if they don't want to, but every little bit helps.
It would be more expensive and it would close a few doors, and yes, some potential for exploitation drama would be sacrificed. But it would also prevent the baby of a perfectly good game show or documentary show from being thrown out with the bathwater of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills.
Here's what I'd ask of a code-compliant show.
Aftercare and counseling. Shows agree to provide up to three months of post-appearance counseling for any participant who requests it.
All contracts must be public. Shows agree that all contracts participants are asked to sign will be available on the show's web site.
Limitations on alcohol. Shows agree that producers will not use footage of participants who are intoxicated if the alcohol was provided by the producers.
Sleep requirements. Filming will be scheduled so as to allow at least six hours of uninterrupted sleep at least five nights out of every calendar week.
Minors. Shows agree to use no non-incidental footage of any child under age ten, and to employ an on-set counselor specializing in adolescents to provide care and advice on the well-being of any participant who is a minor.
Limits on isolation. Shows agree that participants who are removed to an unfamiliar environment that limits their contact with family, friends, or other important sources of support may choose one person with whom they may speak by telephone once a week for 10 minutes without penalty.
Medical care. Shows agree to provide participants with access to qualified physicians for any medical care they require during filming and to assume the costs of any care for an injury or illness that results from participation in the show. A participant who lacks confidence in the medical care he or she is receiving has the right to seek another opinion at his or her own expense without being penalized for any absence from filming.
Background checks. Shows agree to perform full background checks on participants who will reside with other participants outside their own homes and to disqualify any participant with any documented history of violence in the ten years prior to casting.
Repeat appearances. Because long-term participation has effects that short-term participation may not, shows agree that any appearance fee paid to a participant for a subsequent season of the same show must be at least three times the appearance fee for the first season in which the participant appeared. The appearance fee for subsequent seasons must be five times the original appearance fee.
Gag rules. Shows agree not to require participants to refrain from discussing their experiences in interviews subsequent to the conclusion of their participation.
Required follow-ups. Shows agree not to require participants to appear in reunion specials, follow-ups, speaking tours, or any other obligations that take place after the conclusion of principal filming.
Damage to reputation. Shows agree that their producers will participate once every three years in voting on the appointment of a three-person dispute resolution panel made up of individuals who are not employed in the production of television. Any participant who is required to sign a contract releasing a show from liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress or false light invasion of privacy has the right to bring complaints to that panel. Shows agree to provide up to three hours of raw footage requested by the complaining participant to the panel. If the panel concludes that the show materially misrepresented the participant's actions or character in a way that tends to substantially damage his or her reputation, the panel may require the show to make available online up to 30 minutes of raw footage that remedies the misrepresentation.
Incapacity. Shows agree that if a participant dies or is otherwise incapacitated while the show has in its possession any unaired footage of or referring to the person, no footage depicting or discussing the person will be shown unless the family of the person specifically requests that it be shown and no member of the person's immediate family requests that it not be shown.