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Opinion: The tragic death of a Jeremy Kyle Show guest highlights the dangers of confessional TV

Some talk shows walk a thin line between sympathy, sensationalism and exploitation, writes Dr Finola Doyle O’Neill.

Finola Doyle O’Neill

THE DEATH OF a guest on the Jeremy Kyle Show, which led first to its suspension and then to its axing, raises serious issues regarding the role of the daytime TV talk show as a programme format.

This type of show is difficult to place into a strict classification. But in both the US and the UK a type of entertainment uniquely suited to the demands of television has evolved.

The daytime talk show, at its best, combines some of the principal qualities of other successful dramatic forms – the emotional intimacy of melodrama and elements of comedy, while at the same time being able to offer a compelling immediacy which no work of TV fiction can provide.

The versatility of these shows allows them to straddle the genres within television, from journalism to melodramatic soap opera.

In America, The Oprah Winfrey Show was a forerunner of the intimate audience discussion programme.

Oprah initially opted for opposition rather than pluralism but later limited her format to discrete disclosures and consciousness-raising issues and offered less talk-time to confessionals.

On programmes like Jeremy Kyle, ITV’s long-running daytime show, the audience (in the studio and at home) was encouraged to tell its own stories, to agree or disagree and to confront or support the speaker – generating a cacophony of narratives on and beyond the small screen.

The host 

Within the framework of the talk show genre, there exists a certain ambiguity concerning the role of the host.

Is he or she the chairperson of a debate, the referee, a conciliator, a judge, the compère of a game show or a therapist?

At times, the host can play any one of these roles, moving between debate and therapy session.

Over the years, Jeremy Kyle’s offering moved in the direction of the American voyeuristic talk show, The Jerry Springer Show.

Stories are told of mothers taking a stand against abusive fathers or teenagers telling of their battle with eating disorders or substance abuse.

All of these real-life traumas increase audience identification. Some of these programmes can create a type of ‘therapy genre’, that generates a supportive intimacy (but only for the duration of the programme).

Therapeutic insights may have been temporarily gained but many television critics and mental health campaigners have been sceptical of this genre, citing its dangers for participants.

Shows like Jeremy Kyle and Jerry Springer walk a precarious line between sympathy and sensationalism. These shows encourage a type of confession that may amount to exploitation. 

In 2008, the Guardian newspaper reported that people with serious mental health issues were being publicly humiliated on the Jeremy Kyle Show. The stepmother of a guest said that she had repeatedly told the researchers of his mental health problems – but they still encouraged him to appear on the show. 

This Tuesday, another former guest of Jeremy Kyle told the Guardian, that appearing on the show was the worst thing that had happened in his life and had made it difficult to secure employment.

While he received follow-up calls from production staff after his appearance, they were simultaneously uploading clips online of his appearance, accompanied by captions describing him as the rudest and most hated guest ever. 

“It’s like stabbing someone in the back multiple times and then asking if the person is okay,” he said. 

In 1996, on the US chat show, The Jenny Jones Show, a guest, Scott Amedure was fatally shot after the show by another guest, Jonathan Schmitz.

Amedure had revealed an attraction to Schmitz, who insisted he was heterosexual. The ensuing court case raised issues of broadcasting ethics and the irresponsibility and negligence of intentionally creating explosive situations without due concern for the possible consequences.

The initial jury award to the Amedure family was $25 million. This was later overturned by the Michigan Court of Appeal, due to its ‘chilling’ effect on the entertainment industry.

Rules in Ireland 

Back home in Ireland, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland implements strict codes and standards to hold all broadcasters to account and this is backed by rigorous oversight. We have strict programme guidelines and those who breach them, including by exploiting vulnerable guests, can expect to pay a large fine. 

So it is hoped that we have sufficiently robust procedures here to ensure the welfare of TV guests, especially those that may be vulnerable. 

Perhaps the UK regulators should examine those Irish codes and standards as well as our oversight regime.

They could start by ensuring that rigorous ‘ informed consent’ forms, similar to those signed by any vulnerable person who undergoes medical treatment, are in place. 

Following the tragic outcome from the Jeremy Kyle Show, it is clear that far more needs to be done in the UK – not only to ensure the integrity of broadcasting but more importantly, the emotional and psychological welfare of all invited guests.

Dr Finola Doyle O’Neill is a Broadcast Historian at the School of History, UCC.

She lectures in Irish Media History and Crime and the Media in Ireland and is the author of The Gaybo Revolution: How Gay Byrne Challenged Irish Society.

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