Is there such a thing as ethical reality TV? It’s a question pop culture has been grappling with, in response to a litany of horror stories from some of the world’s most popular shows – in which contestants have experienced long-term psychological and physical harm after appearing on reality TV, some even dying by suicide. To try to get around this bad press while ultimately still creating the same show, producers have been careful to implement (and promote) new “duty of care” practices, now emphasising that contestants are given significant downtime, have access to a therapist and are free to leave the process at any point. Before a show begins, the media is briefed about safeguarding methods and social media protections. In 2024, these are all considered the necessary caveats before any reality programme can air.
Except for The Traitors, the hit BBC reality series hosted by Claudia Winkleman, which – unlike most reality shows – explicitly trades on psychological manipulation and deception. Over the course of two weeks, 22 people live in a remote Scottish castle to play a real-life version of the party game Mafia. A handful are selected as “traitors”, the rest are “faithfuls”, tasked with sussing out the traitors in their midst. All players vote out whom they suspect is a traitor at nightly “banishments”, which are followed by a “murder” committed in secret by the traitors.
During the day, the group compete in team-building challenges to earn a potential prize pot of up to £120,000 – all of which goes to the traitors if any reach the end of the game and is split between the faithfuls otherwise. The show is based on the Dutch series of the same name and has been franchised out to the US and Australia (with the former partially populated with D-list celebrities). Despite the different iterations, each series operates exactly the same: paranoia abounds, the clever exploit the gullible, tears are shed, and players quickly turn on one another – including traitors on traitors, happily sacrificing each other to the group for banishment.
The anxiety, lies and emotional distress baked in to The Traitors should make it one of the worst offenders in reality TV. However, most viewers would tell you it instead offers rare guilt-free viewing. Although at times at each other’s throats, the contestants adopt a summer-camp mentality, calling themselves one big family; the relatively small size of the prize pot – rarely reaching £120,000 and often split between several people – means it isn’t like winning the lottery, circumventing the ethical dilemmas posed in shows that see desperate people scrabbling for cash, like Squid Game: The Challenge. Few of the contestants have been catapulted to extreme international fame, as on shows like Love Island, Married at First Sight or Love Is Blind – and no former Traitors contestants have accused the show of putting them in any psychological discomfort, unlike on other shows.
This has made The Traitors, in its short history, skirt the reputational damage that comes with almost all reality TV. But risks remain. The show has been extremely popular this season, unavoidably putting contestants in the spotlight. Online, unpopular players have received huge amounts of negativity; others have been mocked. A contestant from the first series, Maddy Smedley, has warned about the toll the game can take on some players’ mental health, while another, Alex Gray, has described her actual time in the castle as “draining”, with no way to switch off until the game has ended.
Part of what has also made this series even more thrilling and more widely viewed than the last is an uncomfortable fact of all entertaining reality TV: that people are treating each other badly. There has more deviousness, more crocodile tears, more delight in “murder”. But players and viewers seem to accept all this with the repeated mantra: “It’s just a game.”
The unfortunate problem, fundamental to all reality TV is that it’s always just fun and games – until it isn’t. That caveat will always hang at the end of the sentence – and rightly – whether or not we hear contestants come forward with the issues we’ve seen in other reality TV. The hype around The Traitors – which has earned itself the oxymoron “wholesome reality” – has allowed it to avoid ethical scrutiny. It may well be that the show is the closest thing we have yet to “ethical” reality TV. But we should carry a healthy amount of scepticism for any show where the environment is, by design, distressing for our entertainment.
You can’t escape the truth that, to make great reality TV, some participants are going to have to suffer. You need villains, you need victims, you need devastating twists and surprises. That suffering can be relative – it can even be happily accepted by everyone on the show. But the secret ingredient will always be formulating high-stakes situations that come at someone’s expense.
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