Steve Irwin was an unassuming, unexpected star of TV. The documentaries he made were point and shoot. They fell into a reality TV category because anything could and did happen. Sure Steve planned what he was going to shoot, but he did it in a different way to other wildlife shows like David Attenborough. We watched Steve because we knew at any moment, due to his reckless daring, he could be attacked and genuinely hurt.
As his fame and ratings grew, so did the risks he took and eventually, in a quest for extraordinary shots, he swam with stingrays and was speared to death.
It almost went unnoticed in terms of the culpability of the television lens spurring him on. And, to be honest, Steve was his own producer making his own decisions so there was little window to point any finger of blame except at Steve.
But his quest for adventure and ratings is a symptom of death by TV, something that is surely going to become more recognizable in the future.
We have truckers driving on treacherous roads where we watch because they may go over the side and die, or drive over a crack in the ice and die.
We have people risking their lives in the name of daring journeys or surviving horrific circumstances that they have placed themselves in to gain ratings.
We have little girls being pushed by mothers to fulfill their own faded or unfulfilled dreams in a quest to win pageants and we sit and watch the little dress up dolls, knowing full well, because of the parenting, in many cases we are watching the first chapter of very tragic lives.
Producers seem to be seeking out people who are living lives that are clinically diagnosable for the entertainment of those at home.
They are finding others who have been born and bred to abhor certain types and then couple them with these hated adversaries and thrust them into circumstances where they are made to live together, and it’s all filmed for our amusement as they co-exist.
Meet the Reynolds, a family of Neo Nazis who live on a secure and guarded compound in the rural wilderness of forgotten land. They rise at six thirty every morning and school their children on the best methods to defend themselves against all intruders. Mum Mary-Anne keeps their cement bunker shipshape and rotates the canned supplies, feeding her ‘God warriors’ on canned food that is about to outlive its 15 year use by date.
In the Davis Junior household, an African American Jewish family, they love to sing and dance and celebrate diversity. Eva encourages her children to embrace foreign cultures and live alternative lifestyles.
But today, their lives are about to change when these two mothers trade places on Wife Swap.
Wife Swap knows people tune in to see a train wreck and one day soon that train wreck is going to take a life. It may sound melodramatic, but real lives are being challenged, changed and destroyed on these shows.
It’s easy to argue that in many cases the changes and exposure to a new culture or lifestyle helps and expands the minds of people who may never have come into contact with such influences otherwise, and these points are valid. In many cases the setup and payoff is enlightening for everyone involved and for the audience. But pushing for ever increasing diverse intermingling, often clearly chosen to annoy the different households, will eventually lead to something going horribly wrong.
Already there is a case in the UK where the aftermath of the show, well after filming had completed, left one wife declaring her lesbianism and her husband, Simon Foster, taking his own life. There’s been little coverage of what’s become of the two children involved.
I would be interested in a follow up Wife Swap show to find out how many couples have divorced and how many of them laid the blame in part or whole at the feet of the show that disrupted their lives. Maybe these results are for the best. Maybe some of those involved were liberated from oppressive lives they didn’t have the courage to get out from under… but we’ll never know because producers have better sense than to highlight the danger and damage done in their quest for ratings.
No-one seems to really care. The producers are slick and the spin doctors savvy enough to keep the virtue of the entertainment front and centre. But the line between interesting voyeurism and something far more sinister was well and truly crossed some time ago.
When will the first death occur on Bridal-plasty? Law of averages says it will happen. Any doctor will confirm that a general anesthetic carries a risk and patients have, can and will continue to die from complications of both anesthesia and surgery. On every episode of every plastic surgery show, people go under the knife under full anesthetic. So it’s not a matter of if but when this first televised tragedy occurs. The producers and networks will spin it somehow, or bury it, and even worse, the ratings will spike because of it, but someone’s going to die for the sake of onscreen entertainment.
Many years ago a young man, Scott Amedure, famously confronted his long time gay crush on the Jenny Jones show, a contemporary of the Springer show. Humiliated, the man Scott revealed he had a crush on waited until they got home and shot Scott dead.
So how much responsibility does TV have? How much responsibility do we as an audience have? On drama shows there are time slots that dictate exactly what subjects can be explored and even which topics cannot be explored, but how does fly on the wall reality TV deal with this issue especially now that some of it is live to air?
Can a producer who puts a pitbull and a kitten in the same cage plead innocence because he didn’t know what the outcome would be?
Update - June 3 2013 - Two stars of the Discovery Channel show were among the 10 people killed by tornadoes that rampaged through central Oklahoma on Friday, unsettling the highly risky cottage industry of tracking tornadoes and forcing the media to rethink how they cover deadly twisters.