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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 May 2007, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Ethics of reality TV
Pete Bennett
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The Big Brother circus is starting again, with even a "topsy turvy" house to toy with its contestants' minds. As the makers of reality TV shows seek new ways to shock, ethicists Daniel Sokol and James Wilson evaluate the fall-out.

Reality TV thrives on extreme circumstances. In the past week, Dutch programme makers have faced censure for a show in which the prize is a life-saving kidney, and Australian Big Brother for keeping a contestant in the dark when her father died.

The mind games look set to continue with the UK's eighth series of Big Brother about to start. As well as entertainment, the series is an experiment into human behaviour. Yet, unlike research which uses human participants, there are no ethical safeguards to minimise the risks to those involved.

All medical research must be reviewed by an independent ethics committee. And in education, universities usually require even undergraduate students to get "ethics approval" if a project involves human participants.

Kidney operation
Compete for a kidney?
Projects that would be rejected by the most lenient of ethics committees appear regularly on our TV screens. Contestants may be asked by authority figures to perform acts which may be distressing or humiliating, and which may be difficult to refuse. A refusal may lead to eviction, criticism by fellow contestants, losing a privilege or incurring some other kind of penalty.

Contestants may also worry about the reaction of the viewing public and its impact on their reputation and career prospects. They may feel coerced to do something they would not otherwise do.

Too cruel

In research involving humans, consent is vital. In reality TV, however, contestants' consent to participate may be grossly inadequate. Are they provided with enough information to make an informed decision, or are some important details deliberately downplayed or withheld?

Contestants on C4's Space Cadets, tricked into believing they were in orbit
Space Cadets: The joke's on you
Some reality TV shows rely on deception for their success. Contestants may mistakenly believe they are in a spacecraft, or that they are talking in confidence when other contestants can hear every word. Therein lies the entertainment.

Another concern is whether consent is truly voluntary. Cash prizes may be irresistible carrots which blind them to the implications of their participation. The prospect of fame, celebrity interviews, pictures in glossy magazines and invitations to glamorous parties may further undermine their ability to think rationally.

How do we know if the participants are competent to take part? Some have appeared on the edges of sanity and, in at least one instance, a contestant threatened to commit suicide. We may wonder whether the pre-show psychological assessment is screening unstable individuals out, or in.

Whether or not qualified psychologists should get involved is a related question, especially as they know such projects would never be approved in an academic setting. Should their professional ethics forbid their participation?

Ratings grabber

There are many other ethical considerations, such as in what circumstances should the show be stopped or modified? What kind of support or counselling will be provided for the contestants afterwards?

Danielle Lloyd and Shilpa Shetty
Danielle Lloyd makes up with Shilpa Shetty post-Celebrity Big Brother
The recent dilemma faced by the Australian Big Brother producers, when a contestant's father died while she was in the house, reflects the need to consider such ethical issues in advance.

It seems inconsistent to require ethics approval to protect participants in medical and educational contexts, but not reality TV shows. The fact that something is to be broadcast as entertainment does not remove the duty to treat other human beings decently.

Independent ethics committees, made up of people from production companies, broadcasting, academic institutions and the general public, could be set up to evaluate reality TV proposals. These could critically review proposals, suggest changes if necessary or reject projects outright.

This will not mean the death of the genre, but producers will need to consider their ethical responsibilities before proposing ever more daring shows.

Some may think "ah, but these shows won't be fun anymore". But the committee's role would not be to reduce the entertainment value, but to ensure that it doesn't come at too high a moral cost. If people want to take part in potentially painful or embarrassing shows, that's up to them, but they should understand what they are signing up for.

And surely we should not tolerate ill treatment for the sake of entertainment. In medicine, regulations and codes of ethics followed the revelation of highly unethical research conducted during World War II. In reality TV, contestants will not be injected with cholera or forced to drink sea water, as in the Nazi medical experiments of the 1940s. But the risk of severe harm, especially psychological distress, remains.

Dr Daniel Sokol and Dr James Wilson are lecturers in ethics at Keele University.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Humans are always curious to see other peoples' behaviour and reactions. Long standing TV soaps prove this point as they are based on normal everyday events that people can relate to. Shows such as Big Brother further extend this reach into human curiosity. However, by controlling functions in their environment does not represent reality TV as a certain reaction is almost guaranteed by the participants.
Martin John, Cairo, Egypt

We have enough nannying from the Government as it is - without having to introduce measures designed to cater for those few individuals who are not able to weigh up the pros & cons of being a contestant on a reality show. I would hope (& assume) that producers go to great lengths to ensure that participants understand exactly what they are letting themselves in for when signing up.
Matt G Baish, Cheltenham, UK

The BB contestants know exactly what they are getting into, and they can always walk out as many do. Many do it for their 5 minutes of fame, others hoping to launch a media career whatever the cost. There are two types of people who complain about BB, experts and viewers unable to operate the off button. Neither group seems to have any argument which stands up to analysis.
Roger, London

The recent racism row and the subsequent accusations of the production company "burying" unsavoury footage clearly show the programme makers' concern is on ratings rather than the housemates' well being.
The Quiet Man, Warrington

What rubbish. Contestants on BB know exactly what they are letting themselves in for and have done ever since series 2; they choose to do it because they know that the fame and fortune are worth it.
Geoff Winkless, Leicestershire, UK

Surely there is a simple answer to anyone suffering ethical concerns about reality TV? Just don't watch it.
Andrew, London, UK

What is the point in vetting a reality TV program it would defeat the whole purpose of it being a REALITY program, plus it would be boring. Outrageous people and how they behave is the reason why we all watch it. They know the risks of entering the house and they know they can pull out at any time so situations never have to become so bad
Sheena, Stevenage

I think every last detail of what goes on should be explicit and the participants informed of this in detail and in advance of the filming. Only by removing the uncertainty and thus the so called entertainment from these reality shows can we finally get rid of the genre and get back to quality entertainment.
Daniel McCluskey, Hatfield

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