Boom in reality TV leads to record increase in complaints

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The Independent Online

Reality TV participants unhappy at their treatment have helped to push the number of complaints about broadcasting standards to a record level.

The Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) said in its annual review published yesterday that complaints about television and radio programmes had risen by 7 per cent in 2002-03 to 2,132.

Documentaries, including reality shows, drew the most complaints, accounting for 39 per cent of the BSC's workload, compared to 25.5 per cent the previous year. "The increasing popularity of game shows and 'reality TV' programmes has given rise to a growing number of complaints," the review said.

"Contributions of members of the public have become a regular part of viewers' television diet, and the BSC has received a number of complaints where contributors have felt that programmes have contained unfair and damaging criticisms of them." This month, the BSC will publish details of a complaint it has upheld against the Channel 4 programme Model Behaviour, which placed a group of young people in a London flat and filmed them attempting to find work on the catwalks. It is understood the complaint was made by a would-be participant over comments made by judges during auditions for the show.

The BSC annual review highlights complaints made by participants in the BBC2 reality series The Trench, in which 24 men shared a 60ft-long First World War-style trench for a fortnight, and the ITV1 dating show Elimidate, where men competed for a woman's attention on a Caribbean island.

Participants in both shows claimed they had been humiliated on camera, although neither complaint was upheld by the BSC, which said they had been treated fairly and that the nature of the programmes had been properly explained to them. But the BSC warned in its annual review: "The public expect other members of the public who agree to participate in television programmes to be made aware of the nature of the programme and the potential impact of television exposure."

The commission's comments follow a succession of legal rows between reality show participants and programme-makers. Ron Copsey, who lived on a Hebridean island for the BBC show Castaway, sued the programme-makers over the way he had been presented and won a settlement of £16,000.

Cynthia McVey, a lecturer in psychology at Glasgow Caledonian University, said reality show participants rarely listened to warnings about the effects of putting themselves in front of the cameras. "They so want to be on the programme, rubbing shoulders with celebrities and maybe getting their own presenter's job, that they don't see the disadvantages," she said.

But Ms McVey, who has acted as a consultant to several reality programmes, said participants had to take some responsibility for their actions. "If they have read a document about the programme and have signed it, then it's very difficult for them to complain."

The review revealed that programmes on BBC1 were the subject of 32 per cent of the commission's workload (compared with 25 per cent in 2001-02). The most complaints received about any programme were in relation to a scene in the BBC1 security services drama Spooks, in which a woman was seen being tortured by having her head immersed in a vat of boiling fat. The complaint was upheld because of "inadequate pre-transmission warning".



David Nolan spent two weeks living in a simulated First World War trench for a BBC reality television show and found himself branded a "slacker, whinger and troublemaker". Millions watched as he was described as a "a pain in the arse to absolutely everybody". The BSC rejected his complaint that he had been treated unjustly.


Donovan Russell was whisked off to the Bahamas to compete against three other men in wooing the sole female participant, Janine Jones. She voted him off the show and described him as "thick". He complained to the broadcasting watchdog, claiming that the programme-maker, Carlton, had told Jones who to de-select. The complaint was rejected.