Does reality TV still have a place on our television screens?

Georgina Littlejohn asks whether 15 minutes of fame is really worth it.

As The Only Way Is Essex marks its tenth anniversary on air, is there still a place for reality TV?

One of the biggest casualties of the coronavirus pandemic has been the entertainment industry.

As the UK went into lockdown, theatres closed down, production on films halted and pending new releases were pushed back as cinemas closed their doors. Filming on soaps, TV dramas and reality shows also ceased and sets were shutdown, leaving a huge hole in broadcast schedules.

The TV industry adapted the best it could by repeating old shows and using the power of technology to socially distant presenters and guests via Zoom, or bring forward the air dates of completed shows and dramas that had initially been scheduled to be broadcast later in the year.

There was a noticeable gap where the soaps should have been on the schedule as fans bemoaned the temporary loss of their weekly fix of life on Albert Square and the cobbles of Coronation Street, as well as the comings and goings in Emmerdale and Hollyoaks.

However, they have all now resumed filming and fans will be eagerly awaiting their return to our screens and some sense of normality being bestowed back on weeknight television.

But can we say the same about reality TV, shows that thrust ordinary yet fame-hungry people into the spotlight?

Don’t get me wrong, I was a huge fan of TOWIE, which paved the way for shows such as Geordie Shore and Made In Chelsea.

During my days as a showbiz reporter, I interviewed many of the cast members and found most of them to be a delight, very down-to-earth and still pinching themselves over how they got so lucky to be involved in a show that opened many doors for them.

Many have gone on to make something of themselves through becoming a household name as well as their determination to hard work and seize every opportunity given to them.

But would these shows be missed if taken off air permanently? TOWIE marks its 10th anniversary this year and will do so with its 26th series and a spin-off called The TOWIE Years, a 10-part series which will look back at some of the most memorable moments from the show that made stars of Gemma Collins, Mark Wright, Joey Essex, Amy Childs and many more.

Same goes for Made In Chelsea, which has now been on air for nine years and like TOWIE, not only has it won a Bafta, but it has turned its stars into celebrities in their own right. And most of them do their own thing now, either through spin-off shows, making guest appearances or having launched successful business ventures.

So the question is, have these shows overstayed their welcome? Have they jumped the shark and should consider bowing out for good?

After all, has anyone actually missed them? While viewing figures are steady, there doesn’t seem to be the same buzz around them as there once was.

And while it might look like a glamorous existence, many cast members of all these shows have faced online abuse, been stalked, suffered mental health problems and hired security to protect them, with some even leaving the shows that made them in order to preserve their sanity and wellbeing.

Which brings me to Love Island, probably one of the most mind-numbingly tacky shows on television. While it does command a legion of fans – which is worrying in itself – there have also been calls for it to be permanently taken off air.

It pushes the idea that you’re only worth shagging or can get a boyfriend or girlfriend if you have a slim, toned and muscular body, perfect white teeth, luscious hair and very little behind the ears.

In fact, a survey of 2,000 adults in the UK which was carried out by Radio 5 Live in 2018 found that 35 percent of respondents said shows such as Love Island and TOWIE were to blame for their low self-esteem.

Even the show’s late presenter Caroline Flack admitted that it portrays ‘unrealistic body image standards’.

But it’s not just the low self-esteem or the mental health issues of the viewers that is a concern. There is one other very sad reason why I think it should be taken off air for good.

In June 2018, Sophie Gradon, 32, a contestant on the second series of Love Island, took her own life. Her friend and fellow contestant Malin Andersson tweeted that the show was cancelled in her eyes and told BBC Newsbeat: “There just needs to be more done about it and a lot more aftercare provided by certain reality TV shows.”

Even Sophie’s mother spoke about how her daughter had been very open with her mental health struggle during the show’s selection process and slammed the bosses of the show and in a direct message to them said: “In my opinion, this was seen as a vulnerability by your staff.

“Sophie exposed her defencelessness to you and you took total advantage. She could be manipulated, deployed and stage-managed to do almost anything at your behest.”

Then, in March 2019, Mike Thalassitis, a contestant on the third series, also committed suicide and as his friend Mario Falcone, one of TOWIE cast members, paid tribute to him, he also hit out at the producers for “Love Island have got to open their eyes to this.

“They’ve got to look at themselves and the way they treat their stars.”

And he added that he wasn’t convinced things would change in light of their deaths.

He said: “In two weeks’ time, this will be old news. Everyone forgets.

“As soon as they’ve finished filming, and the producers are done with them – that’s it. You’re on your own.”

Gradon and Thalassitis weren’t the first – and sadly, probably won’t be the last victims to succumb to the pressures of being a reality TV star.

A report by a national British newspaper found that 38 reality TV stars around the world have taken their own lives since 1986.

If The Jeremy Kyle Show can be permanently taken off air after the suicide of one of its guests, why hasn’t Love Island suffered the same fate?

We really have to ask ourselves – are a few hours of glossy and meaningless entertainment worth risking the lives of these bright young things?

The coronavirus pandemic has put a lot of things into perspective over the last few months and many of us the world over have realised what we used to take for granted is no longer important.

There has also been so much written and said about the impact of mental health on lockdown, so shouldn’t we apply it to what we class as entertainment too?

Because while escapism can offer some much needed light relief at times, what’s important is focusing on our own lives, our health and the love of our friends and family and not be bothered about looking through the keyhole at the not-so-perfect lives of others – or making them pay the price for their 15 minutes of fame.

Photo credit: TOWIE cast, season 11.

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Georgina Littlejohn

Georgina Littlejohn is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience specialising in general and London news, entertainment and music. She cut her teeth in TV writing for news, sport and showbiz programmes before moving into print, starting at Associated Newspapers where she worked across the board from the Metro to the Standard to the London Lite before ending at MailOnline, where she was one of the senior showbiz reporters. After going freelance and working stints at the Mirror, the Sun, Music Week and Closer magazine, she took a career break in 2014 to work for theatre impresario Bill Kenwright as his Head of Communications. After a year as Senior Homepage Editor for MSN, she is now back freelancing and currently working for the i newspaper and its award-winning website. Georgina also volunteers as a kennel assistant for the Mayhew and as a befriender for Age UK.

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