Speak to anyone in the television industry and, while they will disagree about The Jeremy Kyle Show, all are united in one belief: that ITV’s decision to cancel it represents a watershed moment.
An inquest will decide whether Steve Dymond, 63, who was found dead this month after a recording of the show in which he failed a lie detector test, took his own life. But, following the suicides of two Love Island contestants, the entire reality TV genre is now under the microscope.
The only surprise is how long it has taken to reach this point. After all, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) first raised concerns about the psychological effect Big Brother was having on contestants as far back as 2006. As one PR executive, who has advised television companies and celebrities, put it: “This has been going on in plain sight for years. It’s seriously bad for ITV. The lawsuits will follow: claims for wrecked lives, alcoholism, drug abuse.”
One media analyst suggested that a valid comparison was with the Olympic gymnast Beth Tweddle, who is suing the makers of Channel 4’s The Jump after suffering a spinal injury on the reality show. For now, ITV is in damage-limitation mode. “They did the only thing they could in pulling the show completely,” said Ellis Cashmore, author of Celebrity Culture and a visiting professor of sociology at the University of Aston, who argues that programmes like The Jeremy Kyle Show have benefited from the UK’s shifting attitude to privacy. “There is a population out there now which is quite prepared to surrender any semblance of a private life.”
But allowing misery to play out on screen carries psychological risks, especially if someone is dealing with complex issues. Dymond, who was estranged from much of his family, reportedly had a history of depression and was subject to an arrest warrant for unpaid debts when he died.
“You can’t talk somebody out of depression easily but you can make it worse by discouraging and judging and damning,” said Phillip Hodson, a psychotherapist who has appeared on countless television shows and, as a former adviser to the BACP, helped draw up guidelines to protect participants. “A depressed person hears all that stuff. They won’t hear the uplift. But they will hear the downlift.”
Hodson appeared on the talk show Trisha several times but declined an invitation to appear on The Jeremy Kyle Show because the format was “so aggressive”. “It’s very difficult to satisfy the twin gods of TV and therapy,” Hodson said. “Therapy is often unspectacular, incremental increases in improvement, while television needs a massive success – my God, this man has taken up his bed and walked – or hit someone else with said bed.”
Others, however, suggest that The Jeremy Kyle Show paid the price, not so much for the tragic events that have unfolded, but for what it had become. Former Ofcom executive Trevor Barnes claimed in an article for law firm Simons Muirhead & Burton that the Jeremy Kyle row had been “manna from heaven” for some ITV executives. “After 14 years [the show’s] lowbrow image and confrontational style have appeared increasingly tired and dated,” he wrote.