What I enjoyed watching this Christmas, and what I regretted

Starting, as always, with the positive, two of my favourite Christmas viewing experiences this year were:’Detectorists’ and ‘The Boy, the Mole, The Fox and The Horse’.  They are very different productions but their effect upon me was the same; they showed how important relationships are and they gave me hope. 

Detectorists has won a Bafta award for its creator, star and director, Mackenzie Crook, and is about two metal detectorist friends. There have been three series of this slow-moving, gentle and quite mundane comedy plus this most recent one-off special shown on BBC1 on Boxing Day.  The motivation of the two main characters , Andy and Lance, is to find treasure, ideally gold, but what the story shows is that real treasure is the everyday, trust and joy of good relationships.  The added bonus is the most hauntingly lovely sound track written by Johnny Flynn, which has become a bit off an ear worm to me. 

The ‘Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse’ is an animated version of Charlie Mackesy’s exquisitely illustrated best-seller of the same name.  His original work is a simple story of a boy lost in the great outdoors on a winter’s day, who is befriended by, and makes friends, with three very different creatures, i.e., a mole, a fox and a horse.  This tale of acceptance, congruence and unconditional love is a real heart warmer and given it was the most watched item on terrestrial TV, a lot of other people must have found it so as well. This fact, apart from the story, gives me hope because I have to admit, there are times when I feel some despair about the core values that seem to be around today. Nearly all my preceding posts touch upon this to some degree..  Also, the piece of reality TV that I regretted watching, i.e., the Traitors, illuminates what I am trying to communicate here.

BBC1 has just run this compelling 12 part series that is hosted by Claudia Winkleman, and set in an exquisitely beautiful Scottish castle and landscape.  There are twenty plus participants, suitably demographically varied, from various parts of the UK and with a variety of background situations and occupations.  As the title suggests, this show is all about treachery and betrayal.  The participants are obviously encouraged, and willing, to interact and ‘bond’ with each other and fairly soon some clear alliances and friendships are formed.  At the same time, three ‘traitors’ are selected, unbeknown to the other participants, now known as ‘faithfuls’, and the game begins.  The task is to ‘out’ the traitors, to accumulate financial rewards for the winners’ pot and to get to the end of the experience.  However, there is also the strong possibility of either being ‘murdered’ by the traitors or voted out by the gradually dwindling group as a whole.  

I generally feel a bit uncomfortable about choosing to watch reality TV.  Is it because it’s not entertaining? No. Is it because I’m not interested in people? Absolutely not. Is it because it makes me feel less? Yes, and the main reason for this is that I feel that I am colluding with a television phenomenon that can do people harm, usually through manipulating feelings and relationships; and by people I mean participants, production personnel and viewers. Reality television is said to have begun with Channel 4’s ‘Big Brother’ at the start of this century, in the summer of 2000.  Since then a plethora of other reality shows have played out and the appetite for them seems to be inexhaustible.  It is not hard to understand that their content, which draws upon the fascination with people’s behaviour, emotions, relationships and inner lives in general, is so appealing.  Also, from the production perspective, they can be a relatively economic venture compared to productions that employ professional actors. 

As a psychologist I am fascinated by the phenomenon of reality television because it is so new, so popular and still relatively un-theorised and researched.  Drawing upon the theoretical basis of my own clinical practice, I think one way of making sense of it is to see it as a kind of make believe play for adults. It allows people to observe, reflect upon and even try out, ways of being with others.  As Carl Jung is supposed to have claimed: “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” And Einstein apparently believed that  “Play is the highest form of research.”  Donald Winnicott, well known for his contribution to attachment theory, maintained that ideal relationships, along with love, offered some playfulness. 

Of course, the big difference between child’s play and that of adults is that generally speaking, there are safety measures and boundaries for the children, usually in the form of and overseen by responsible and caring adults.  This is not the case for adults, although we do have frameworks, i.e. legal systems, policies and guidance that is supposed to keep people safe and ensure their wellbeing.  Sadly, these are often the result of the worse case scenario playing out, such as the thankfully rare cases of vulnerable individuals involved in reality TV shows, committing suicide after their experiences in front of the viewing millions.

Perhaps the public outcry that has quite rightly arisen after these terrible tragedies, is an expression of the pain and even guilt that people experience when they hear about them, after being a part of the audience that enjoyed seeing manipulation between people and the emotional pain that resulted.

Of course, I could be accused of taking what is essentially a game involving consenting adults, far too seriously. My answer to that is that whilst even one person suffers to such an extent that the programme experience, either direct or vicarious,  makes them contemplate suicide, something needs to change so that the chances of this happening again are reduced.

Things have certainly improved in the media production industry in the twenty plus years in which I have offered my professional psychologist services.  Nowadays, OFCOM policy and guidance makes the duty of care and legal requirements clear and offers advice about how this should be done.  I know from my work with media productions that ever increasing numbers of production companies take their duty of care and the health and safety of participants very seriously.  Part of the measures they take involve employing appropriately qualified professionals to identify sensitivities and vulnerabilities in individual participants and to advise on measures for the production as a whole. 

But there continues to be a big gap, which is to do with the effect upon audiences of experiencing, albeit vicariously, social discomfort or disadvantage and emotional pain in others in the name of entertainment. In a way, I would go so far as to say, the biggest manipulation of all is that of presenting entertainment of this nature to huge numbers of people who by virtue of watching the material, dissociate from their usual sense of fairness and kindness to others and also seem to lose a sense of others as unique and sentient human beings worthy of respect and wellbeing. 

It rather reminds me of Bandura’s famous ‘Bobo doll’ experiment that contributed to his development of social learning theory.  In his study he involved young children in play experiences in which adults displayed aggressive behaviours such as kicking, punching and hitting a large inflatable doll called a Bobo. The children, when playing on their own after this experiment, showed markedly higher levels of aggressive behaviour.  I believe that if reality television offers unkindness, cruelty and manipulation to and between participants as entertainment, and there is a complete absence of censure from everyone involved it is highly likely that desensitisation and disconnection from others can be expected to increase on a much larger scale, i.e. in the lives of the millions who watch and the potential knock-on effect from this is incalculable.  In the absence of any post- production de-briefing with participants and also the lack of any kind of disclaimer from production companies to their audiences, it can only be assumed that an enormous assumption is being made about viewers. This assumption is that viewers are all mature, wise and fully informed about the nature of the material they are watching and they trust the production companies involved to behave well, i.e. to prioritise the wellbeing and safety of participants, their own staff and the viewing public. 

Broadcasters are aware that programmes that contain sensitive material should always offer information about sources of support to viewers who think they may need this.  However, I think more could be done that would benefit everyone.  Reality productions should be required to have a follow-up programme with all participants, who can then share their experiences of the show in which they were involved and by doing so demonstrate all is well and they are carrying on with their lives, if not unchanged, at least unscathed.  Might this break the magic of suspended disbelief that is deliberately promoted through various reality productions? Do people only enjoy this material if they don’t think too hard about it?  Maybe, but then we’re all grownups, right ?  We need to be appropriately informed and we need to be reminded that real people are part of the make believe and are being looked after.

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