The Xploitation Factor

Can we stop the exploitation of TV talent shows?

The relationship between TV talent shows and their contestants has long been a tumultuous and thoroughly unforgiving environment for many contestants to participate in. This is exemplified none better than the tragic case of Yukiko Okada. After capturing the hearts of many in Japan in the mid-1980s, Okada was a rising pop sensation after winning talent show Pop Sensation. However, Okada’s life took an awful turn for the worst and in April 1986, she was found cowering in her gas filled apartment with slit wrists. Her manager came to her rescue, but two hours later she had leapt to her death from the top of her agency’s block. In the aftermath of her death, fans of Okada began to commit suicide in a weird ode to her, with 1986 being the highest year for suicides in Japanese history. One fan said to her sister, moments before she killed herself, that she ‘wanted to be Okada”. Although an extreme example, this symbolises the complicated and often horrendous journey that contestants go through on talent shows.

However, the fate of contestants has sadly changed very little from thirty years ago. A short, wildfire burst of fame and popularity, propelled into the stratosphere of international adulation and the screaming hearts of young teens. The details may vary but the end result is always the same: a dramatic decline into obscurity and jettisoned from the tabloid front.

There have been numerous calls for production companies to undergo a major overhaul of the processes they use to judge the mental health of contestants. Big name mental health charities and campaigners, such as comedian Jo Brand, have spoken out against shows such as X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent as they believe shows like this exploit contestants who suffer from mental health issues. A repeated claim from those quarters is that the shows’ producers have been shirking their responsibilities to safeguard those with mental health issues but instead, wheel them out on stage to be ridiculed and mocked by the judges, the audience and the millions of viewers watching back at home.

A particularly upsetting case is the treatment of Alyn James on BGT who appeared on the live shows even though he has a history of severe mental illness. James told producers of the show that he had been judged a suicide risk no less than seven times. James had a conversation with a psychiatrist who deemed that James was not a risk. James added that he spoke to a researcher who quizzed on him his mental history; James noting that at one stage he was prescribed a course of drugs that “made Pete Doherty look tame”. It seems then, on this basis, that James was offered up to the public as a cheap joke to be laughed at and humiliated. Despite the concerns of James’s background being fully raised and noted, it is evident that the producers had little empathy when it came to him and will do anything to bolster viewing figures and increase sales of the end of series DVD.

Another howler from Simon Cowell’s back catalogue is the touching yet tragic tale of Susan Boyle in 2009. Boyle shot to overnight fame after her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream went viral almost immediately. However, as the show dragged on, Boyle’s mental health began to deteriorate and after the final show she was admitted into the Priory clinic, a psychiatric clinic in London, as she was “exhausted and emotionally drained”. The ignorant attitude that producers hold towards the wellbeing of their contestants is highlighted when it took an intervention from the Press Complaints Commission who, after growing increasingly concerned at Boyle’s behaviour on the show, sent a reminder to the producers of the show of their duties of care to contestants. Boyle is an unfortunate case of someone wanting to fulfil their childhood dreams but being quickly plunged into a merciless, relentless industry where the promise of something bigger and greater is constantly being dangled in front of their nose.

Unfortunately, however, this often comes at the detriment to their own health as they are pushed to keep giving more of themselves. This kind of exploitation by producers and editors, unflinching in their quest to make that extra pound or to boost ratings, places vulnerable people into a precarious universe, which they have virtually no experience of, with little access to support. This is absolutely no way to treat a human being. They are not some disposable toy that they can chuck about for a few months, drain them for all the selling power that they possess and once that last drop of blood has been beaten out of them, they are consigned to the dustbin of reality TV history.

A policy of contestants being safeguarded to protect their mental health should be followed stringently so producers do everything they can to offer them a safe environment and to not treat them like lab rats. If they cannot sing and suffer from mental health issues, then is it really right for them to be brought on stage, sing Whitney Houston badly and then get hounded off? Probably not, and as the public, we should do more to speak out against this, because if we derive entertainment from this then we desperately need to have a think about where we are at as a society.

[Ross McMichael]

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