UK: Reality Bites

Last Updated: 28 August 2019
Article by Kirsty-Anne Jasper

Ofcom's changes to production rules mean television regulation is becoming aligned with ESG principles

Environmental, social and governance or ESG is a term we hear a lot about in relation to the boardroom, but perhaps we think about it less when we are slumped on the sofa after a long day in the office. However, changes to how television producers must act mean that the two are becoming more closely aligned.

Reality television has become an increasingly dominant part of the entertainment landscape with programmes such as Love Island becoming essential viewing for some. This year's series enjoyed its highest ever ratings in July, being watched by more than six million viewers for the first time. The ITV2 reality show's 3rd July episode was only beaten in that week's ratings by the Women's World Cup semi-final and several Coronation Street instalments. Arguably the most famous reality television star, Jade Goody, has recently been the subject of a three-part documentary series on Channel 4, entitled Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain.

Reality television has always been as controversial as it is entertaining, from watercooler discussions to broadsheet analysis, but a series of high profile suicides has led to increased calls for television producers to bolster their safeguarding provisions for their participants.

Duty of Care

The media regulator Ofcom has announced plans to protect reality TV participants following the suicides of two Love Island contestants; 26 year old Mike Thalassitis and 32 year old Sophie Gradon. In addition to these two high-profile participants, another thirty-eight people have died in suspected suicides linked to reality TV shows since 1986.

The catalyst for the new changes appears to have been the now-cancelled The Jeremy Kyle Show and the suicide of Steve Dymond, after he failed a lie detector test. The incident prompted a reckoning for the entire television industry and, as a consequence, Ofcom has proposed a new requirement for all television producers to protect the 'dignity' of members of the public.

In addition to programme-makers and broadcasters having to take due care with the "welfare, wellbeing and dignity" of participants, they will also have to ensure members of the public are not "caused unjustified distress or anxiety by taking part in programmes or by the broadcast of those programmes".

The Jeremy Kyle incident led to a House of Commons' Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee inquiry into reality TV where the committee chair, Damian Collins, said he was concerned about the methods producers use to find participants citing that on one occasion in late 2018 the programme's makers "used Facebook ads to find individuals who wanted to take lie detector or DNA tests".

"It is particularly concerning that the production team appeared to be specifically targeting people who were hoping to resolve a difficult personal situation," he said.

Ofcom's director of content standards, Tony Close, said: "People who take part in TV and radio shows must be properly looked after by broadcasters, and these rules would ensure that happens. These new safeguards must be effective. So we're listening carefully to programme participants, broadcasters, producers and psychologists before we finalise them".

Pact, the trade body which represents the UK's independent television production companies, was keen to highlight the fact that this type of programme has a place in ensuring diversity on television stating; "reality TV has already played a role in raising social, health and welfare issues amongst the public through the inclusion of participants from across the socio-economic, gender identification, political and cultural spectrum".

However, these arguments have to be balanced with the responsibilities of producers to ensure the safety of their participants. The planned new code may have been inspired by reality TV but will apply to almost all radio and television programmes other than dramas, sitcoms and soap operas.

ESG

Although it's clear to see that lessons must be learned from these failings, perhaps it's harder to see how they relate to other industries. Although one would hope that your particular field does not have the same level of tragic consequences that reality TV has, the new protections stem from failings of the environmental, social and governance (ESG) elements of sustainability.

We can perhaps sympathise with broadcasters who may be angered by the increased regulatory burden at a time when they are struggling with falling audiences, especially among younger Britons. Particularly as the rules will not apply to online-only content such as YouTube and Netflix, which remains unregulated despite rapid growth. These are the same issues that we see time and time again regarding other spheres where it can sometimes seem that more established elements face greater regulatory burden, than powerful industry disruptors.

Ofcom said "attitudes in society to welfare and wellbeing" have changed and the broadcasting code needed updating to reflect new social standards, much like the way that there are expectations from company stakeholders that their firm must have a social conscience. Without these new protections and adopting robust ESG, reality television is doomed. It is these lessons that can be applied to your own company.

For any business, good governance means ensuring the right people are running it and that they are paid and incentivised appropriately, with the right checks and balances in place. If you fail on these issues then your business is unlikely to prove sustainable – and it appears the same can be said for certain TV programmes.

In effect, a failure to acknowledge ESG risks was sufficient to end one of the UK's most-watched daytime television programmes, The Jeremy Kyle Show. Without serious ESG considerations, any industry, even one as large as reality television, risks becoming unsustainable. 

Kirsty-Anne Jasper is Deputy Editor of Governance and Compliance

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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