Stop your middle-class sneering at Jeremy Kyle. The British public gets the television it deserves

It might have gone too far at points, but the show was about the reality of infidelity, child neglect, men who don’t pay their child maintenance and mothers who are serial adulterers

Janet Street-Porter
Friday 17 May 2019 18:28
Jeremy Kyle Show audience member describes Steven Dymond episode

Lots of patronising piffle has been written over the last few days about The Jeremy Kyle Show. As a result of the unfortunate death of one troubled participant after he failed a lie detector test (a chap who admitted he hadn’t kept in regular touch with his son, and whose former partner accused him of cheating), a popular programme has been axed and the presenter characterised as the devil incarnate.

People who watch The Jeremy Kyle Show won’t care what writers in the middle-class press and MPs say about popular taste, but they might be mystified as to why one of their favourite weekday programmes has disappeared from their television screens. Jeremy Kyle fans who tuned into it every morning pay proportionally more for television licences out of lower salaries (and state pensions) than the outraged critics demanding that television companies adopt the moral high ground.

In middle-class circles, people often say “you never lose money underestimating the taste of the British working class”. They sneer at programmes like I’m a Celebrity and The Only Way is Essex, but millions of viewers across all income brackets and age groups avidly tune in. Last week, my fiftysomething physiotherapist sheepishly admitted he was worried ITV might now axe its successful series Love Island. Like so many people outwardly “outraged” by Jeremy Kyle, this medical professional enjoys watching what is regarded as “chav TV”, even claiming this “guilty pleasure” was a chance to understand what his son likes.

In spite of what Damian Green (chair of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee) might say, television companies are not charged with providing social care to guests, nor are they an outpost of the NHS. A commercial company like ITV has to ensure a profit for shareholders, achieved by broadcasting programmes attracting large audiences, so advertising can be sold at the highest possible rates during those shows.

Revenue has to be found from sponsorship, product placement and clever exploitation of formats and overseas sales. If a programme doesn’t deliver, then in this hard commercial world, it gets dumped. With more channels and programme streaming sources than ever (Netflix and Amazon, for example, are both prepared to spend millions to establish themselves as players), and advertising revenue at more or less the same level as a decade ago, these are tough times.

On commercial channels, popular taste is the key driver. So-called “dross” like Kyle is a perfect reflection of modern taste and has been so for over a decade. The British public gets the television it deserves. The BBC made a terrible mistake by axing Clarkson and co and their replacements have never achieved the same connection with the audience.

Following the death of two stars from Love Island (both a considerable time after appearing on the show), ITV announced plans were in place for “bespoke after care” for participants. But what can broadcasters do other than offer support and counselling? They are not the Samaritans. Most people think that appearing on television will bring fame, success, job offers and hosts of new friends and the experience will be nothing but positive.

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It’s the shift back to everyday life, a normal job and no more celebrity invitations that some reality show participants find hard to cope with. Anyone who lives their life through pals collected on social media is risking a disconnect between real and fake friends. Broadcasters have limited responsibility.

Reality television is currently the single most popular genre across all channels with the exception of drama, which only delivers huge Bodyguard-type ratings once or twice a year. A format like I’m a Celebrity or Love Island or Big Brother can be broadcast across several platforms at once, in different versions, and become a massive talking point for viewers.

Having appeared in several reality shows (including I’m a Celebrity) and produced a lot of television, I can see that what passes for “reality” on television these days is highly constructed to deliver “jeopardy” and “risk” to the maximum level because that’s what audiences will enjoy and talk about. Disputes and confrontations are carefully engineered to result in explosive situations. Participants will rehearse and be taken through storylines to get the maximum impact.

Shows like I’m a Celebrity require participants to eat revolting food, take part in demeaning trials, and reveal an awful lot about themselves, being filmed 24 hours a day. Tears and tantrums are TV (and ratings) gold. Even a show about a person’s ancestry like Who Do You Think You Are? needs emotion and tears. This is nothing new – all the reality formats can be traced back to the 1980s.

It’s a bit rich for Charles Walker, Tory vice chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention, to claim his moment of glory by saying that “exposing quite vulnerable people to ridicule [on Jeremy Kyle] is really not compatible with the mores of the second decade of the 21st century”. This is a patronising middle-class view of some of the most successful and popular programmes adored by the vast majority of the British public.

Jeremy Kyle’s show may have overstepped the mark from time to time, but it reflected a section of the audience who only appear on television as sanitised versions of themselves reading scripts in EastEnders and or other soaps, when producers and programmers decide that an issue like incest or domestic abuse needs to be aired. The Jeremy Kyle Show was about the reality of infidelity, child neglect, men who don’t pay their child maintenance and mothers who are serial adulterers. Guests knew what to expect – the show had been running for 14 years – so how could there be any surprises?

Jeremy Kyle occasionally went too far, but overall he did an excellent job. I hope he returns with a different series. We don’t need MPs to set the standards for popular entertainment.

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