The reality of reality TV

Almost two-thirds of Australian households cuddle up on the couch to watch TV at night. Research by shows 66 per cent of those, flick the channel over to reality TV dating shows. That’s around 11.1 million people.

According to Perth psychologist Marny Lishman, what is shown on these reality shows is often not the true story or depiction of the person on screen, and this can have a negative impact on the contestant’s mental health. The filming environment and repercussions after the show airs including backlash on social media can also impact the wellbeing of participants. 

Four of the top ten rating shows of 2020 were reality TV according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Lishman says going on a reality TV show is a risk and those who choose to take part have to be prepared for the worst as some former reality TV stars have spoken out about their mental health deteriorating either during or after the show. 

If these complaints are true, how can this be allowed to continue?

The 2021 season of Married at First sight Australia is currently under investigation. Around 12,000 viewers have signed a petition calling for Nine to apologise for airing certain scenes they say are triggering.

Nine was unable to respond before publication. 

Involved in the scandal is Married at First Sight groom Bryce Ruthven and his on-screen bride Melissa Rawson. 

The on-screen, and now engaged couple, believe the show deserves to be investigated. Ruthven says the production company doesn’t accurately portray people on air, and the show gets complaints every year but nothing is done about it.

The petition says Melissa was subject to gaslighting and there were signs of a controlling and abusive relationship.  

Bryce Ruthven has described his experience on Married at First Sight as “one big game” and a “constant battle with the producer on the show”. He says the show deserves to be investigated. 

Bryce Ruthven says he was involved in on-screen drama created by producers. Audio: Mikayla Fanto.

Ruthven adds the backlash from the show can be a frustrating environment to be in as the contestants have no control over how they are going to look once the show airs. He says there were psychologists available to help them during filming, but they report everything back to the head producer. 

“They would try to use it against you at some point…it’s kind of adding to their ability to build a story around you,” he says. 

Bryce and Melissa are now engaged after meeting on the show.

Married at First Sight bride Susie Bradley from Jimboomba Queensland says filming on set for the dinner parties can take up to 10 hours. 

She says the whole cut and edit of the show is easily manipulated. 

This year’s SAS Australia contestant Dan Ewing was upset with his portrayal on the show. According to an article written by Ewing’s co-recruit Jana Pittman says only some of the more dramatic sides of him were shown. 

Psychologist Marny Lishman says being misrepresented in the public eye can have massive psychological effects on someone. 

 “It is a very anxiety-provoking situation to put yourself in, and I think most people would feel quite anxious and stressed as a result of that.”

Ruthven says the environment during filming was toxic and producers pick and choose targets to see who they can get the reactions out of. 

According to Ruthven, the producers can threaten you with a bad edit if you don’t say what they want you to say.

Dr Lishman says it’s a problem.

“As a health professional it’s all about, do no harm, and all I see in producers of these shows is harm.

“You can see the psychological effects on people’s journeys and for me, it’s actually quite hard to watch.”

Ruthven reveals there were moments while filming where the producers intentionally created drama. He says his on-screen relationship with partner Melissa was made to look like they were the main focus for drama out of all the couples.

“There was a rumour about me having a secret girlfriend in Canberra and that was never the case.” 

He says in these situations where people start to accuse you of things your emotions become heightened. 

“I don’t think anyone likes being misrepresented, I don’t think anyone likes being told what their identity is when it’s different to what they know is the truth,” Lishman explains..

Dr Lishman says when our identity is threatened, it can be uncomfortable. Video: Mikayla Fanto.

An academic paper titled The Rise and Reign of Reality TV by Jessica Butler, critiques the genre. It says the most popular criticism is that it is fake and scripted. 

It suggests, although reality TV dating shows are edited and can be manipulated, viewers who take the content at face value can be affected. It says other shows such as The Biggest Loser can have negative impacts on some women, with larger women experiencing a less positive body image after watching the show. 

Butler’s article states the birth of the pseudo-celebrity can also have an impact on society. Dr Lishman says too many reality contestants think they are going to find fame or insta success,  but there can be a down side to gaining that attention

David Witko from Melbourne was on the first season of The Bachelorette Australia in 2015. He says he was taken aback by the environment of the show and didn’t know what to expect. 

David Witko says the show put pressure on contestants to say certain things. Audio:Mikayla Fanto.
Infographic:Mikayla Fanto.

“There’s a lot of hidden agendas behind the scenes that I wasn’t across,” he says.

The environment of the show had a negative impact on David’s modelling career and mental health both while filming the show and later when the show aired. 

Witko had a fifteen-year career in modelling before going on The Bachelorette, and he says the way the producers edited the show was very different to what happened. On the nights of filming, there was a lot of pressure from contestants to compete with each other on the show.

Witko says although they were good friends on the show, there was drama created between himself and soccer player Michael Turnbull which ended up getting him kicked off the show. The narrative made David look jealous of Michael for being good looking and successful. 

The show had a severe impact on Witko’s mental health and he coped with feelings of depression by isolating himself. Other contestants on reality TV shows have spoken about their struggles with mental health once the show aired. 

An article in Who says Abbie Chatfield, a participant in Matt Agnew’s season of The Bachelor, was trolled on the internet after being portrayed as a villain on the show.

Once the show aired, Witko received a lot of social media backlash for being portrayed as the villain.

“I had people basically, using every single word that you can imagine that is the worst on social media, trying to tell me that I’m an asshole and all that kind of stuff,” he says. 

“I had people telling me to kill myself.”

David Witko

Some contestants struggle with long-term mental health issues. This had led to 38 ex-reality TV stars taking their own lives according to an article on Metro.Co.

Witko says he still struggles with social anxiety which he thinks will never go away.

Dr Marny Lishman says people with social anxiety often fear the uncomfortableness of being in social situations because of how they have been treated in the past.

 “When you think people don’t like you or you fear being rejected or you feel uncomfortable around people, you don’t want to go out in public anymore,” she says. 

Witko was blocked by producers, from speaking to radio stations who were reaching out to him and wasn’t given the opportunity to speak out about what happened on the show after the episodes were aired. He says the producers didn’t want to take the attention away from the show itself.

“ [It] would have been probably good for me to give me a bit of a platform to explain myself, why they’ve betrayed me like that.”

Reality TV doesn’t only affect those participating in the show, it also has an affect on views, especially those who are younger.Research suggests those aged between 15-17 are the most impacted by this genre of show, with reality TV linked to body dissatisfaction and materialism. It suggests adolescence are more likely to aspire to be like the characters on TV if their lifestyle leads to positive outcomes.  

Former Married at First Sight contestant Susie Bradley talks about her experience on the show. Audio: Mikayla Fanto.

Categories: General