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3 August 2022

Big Brother is back. Can nothing stop our obsession with toxic TV?

Despite a number of suicides of former contestants, our addiction to reality TV programming is only getting worse.

By Imogen West-Knights

Big Brother is back. Last night, during the Love Island final, ITV announced that the reality TV show that launched a thousand reality TV shows would be returning in 2023. Given the enormous popularity of Love Island, it makes sense that the network wants to try to usher in a new golden age of reality television.

It makes sense for ITV, that is. Otherwise, the timing feels very queasy. Following the numerous suicides of reality TV contestants over the past decade, the morality of locking people up in fabricated environments for weeks and inviting the public to watch has become a frequent topic of public debate. Documentaries have been made about the aftermath for contestants. (Ovie Soko, a former Love Island contestant, presented a 2020 documentary about the dangers of reality television in which he described the format as “a rotten apple dipped in gold”.) Edge of Reality, a podcast that started in June in the middle of this year’s Love Island series, charts the horrifying impact that reality television can have on participants. Yet nothing seems to stop reality TV being commissioned.

Why? Because we’re addicted to it. It is designed to be addictive. When a friend told me about Edge of Reality, I had a feeling that reminds me of hearing about the effects of a person’s smoking habit: a kind of instinctive recoiling. I know smoking is bad for me, but I don’t want to be reminded. I don’t want to have to acknowledge that I am going to do it anyway, regardless of how damaging it is. I didn’t want to listen to the podcast for the same reason: I am addicted to Love Island. Fans of shows such as Love Island know that it’s bad, we understand exactly why it’s bad, and yet the promise of the endorphin hit every night is enough to keep us crawling back. Last year, after the deeply uncomfortable treatment of Faye – who was shown photos out of context that made her believe her partner had been unfaithful – I said that I wouldn’t watch the 2022 Love Island. By the time the season came around, I made whatever excuses I needed to justify watching it again. Yes, it’s bad. But I want it.

I lied to myself: I’ll watch it, but I won’t say anything disparaging about the contestants online. But like clockwork, when one of the contestants seemed to be bullying another this year, I was weak: tweeting about it, buying into the narrative that the producers had manufactured to be maximally enraging.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that we can’t be trusted to consume reality television in a way that is responsible because the format itself is not responsible. Big Brother has provided some of the most beloved of memes: the viral clip “Pooja, what is this behaviour?” from the 2011 Indian version of the show, the “David’s dead” debacle from the 2016 celebrity series. I have fond memories of watching Big Brother for the first time, in its seventh series, with Pete Bennett and Nikki Grahame, who delighted viewers with her outbursts. But our nostalgic pleasure at the return of a favourite television show should not come at the cost of the well-being of vulnerable people who get cast in these programmes. Many people said that Grahame should not have been cast in Big Brother because she suffered from anorexia. She died as a result of her illness in 2021.

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And yet – even as I write this, a part of me is anticipating the return of Big Brother and thinking: “God, I bet it will be good viewing.” I am the problem as much as the broadcasters are.

[See also: When England’s women won the Euros]

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