Zoe Bell is a Canadian journalist based in London.
Netflix has struck reality TV gold with its latest hit, Love is Blind. On this dating show that makes relationships on The Bachelor seem conventional, strangers have the option to get engaged, but must do so within just 10 days – sight unseen.
After “dating” from adjacent pods, contestants finally see each other face to face once they have popped the question. Four weeks later, couples walk down the aisle. “I dos” – and in some cases, “I don’ts” – are exchanged.
When the show began streaming on Feb. 13, Love is Blind contestants were thrust from complete anonymity into the spotlight. The backlash against contestants was immediate. After a particularly heated argument aired, one couple received death threats.
Reality TV has a serious mental-health problem and Love is Blind is just the latest example. On Feb. 15, British television personality and former Love Island host Caroline Flack, 40, was found dead in her east London home. She had taken her own life.
This marked the third death by suicide of a Love Island star in two years, after former contestants Mike Thalassitis in 2019 and Sophie Gradon in 2018.
Reality shows offer escapism. But for contestants, it is their real lives that come under fire. As viewers, we cannot ignore the harsh reality of what intense media scrutiny does to contestants.
Love Island, like Love is Blind, is an absurd and addictive program. Since its 2015 debut, this reality dating show has become one of Britain’s favourite guilty pleasures. Hot, young singles gather on a tropical island and “couple up” in the hopes of finding love and winning the £50,000 (around $88,000) prize. The series airs on Britain’s ITV network six nights a week.
Reality shows are popular and lucrative ventures for television networks and streaming services alike. Last summer, Love Island maintained a weekly average of 5.3 million viewers. A U.S. version of the show launched last year and has been renewed for a second season. The most recent season of The Bachelor – another franchise that has seen two contestant deaths by suicide in its nearly two decades on air – averaged roughly 7.7 million viewers a show, while newcomer Love is Blind was one of the most popular shows on U.S. Netflix for weeks.
Once a season is over, reality-show contestants return to their regular lives with millions of social-media followers – opening the door for both sponsorship deals and an influx of hate from so-called “keyboard warriors.”
For Ms. Flack, being in the television spotlight since 2002 did not mean she was hardened to criticism. Throughout the years she appeared on several popular reality shows and was open about struggling with life in the public eye. She often faced great scrutiny in the press.
She stepped down from hosting the most recent season of Love Island – the finale took place on Feb. 23 – after being charged with assaulting her boyfriend. At the time of her death, Ms. Flack was set to stand trial in a little more than two weeks. She had denied all allegations of assault.
Ms. Flack was featured frequently in Britain’s tabloids, particularly The Sun and The Daily Mail. After her alleged assault, The Sun called her “Caroline Whack.” Just one day before her death, the tabloid posted a story about a Valentine’s Day card mocking the presenter’s alleged assault. This article has since been deleted.
Tabloids in Britain can be cruel, relentless and intrusive. Fans hope Ms. Flack’s death marks a turning point in how the news media treats reality stars. A petition signed by more than 850,000 people was delivered to the British government last week demanding stricter laws around safeguarding celebrities.
After Ms. Gradon and Mr. Thalassitis’s suicides, ITV released new guidelines addressing contestants’ well-being, promising to remain in contact with participants after the show and provide training to deal with social media. But despite calls for the show’s cancellation, ITV is currently recruiting cast members for the summer edition of Love Island. As for Love is Blind, Netflix has not yet confirmed a second season.
Clearly, a huge appetite exists for watching flawed people find love. Despite suicides and death threats, Love Island and Love is Blind will likely continue. The question remains: How do we prevent future tragedies?
Suicide and mental illness affects everyone, not just celebrities. But reality stars are especially vulnerable, as their lives change drastically overnight. Contestants need to be protected during this transition, particularly as they return to social media.
ITV’s promise to step up the mental-health resources available during and after production is a start. Networks have a responsibility to monitor contestants and presenters long after the cameras turn off.
The petition campaigning for what’s known as “Caroline’s Law” also aims to make media bullying and harassment a criminal offence – but primarily pushes back against Britain’s tabloids. We can ask the press to stop bullying, but what about us, the fans? On social media, the floodgates are still open.
Ms. Flack’s death serves as a harsh reminder of the viewer’s individual responsibility. Incessant online attacks, cruel jokes, memes and snarky comments that fly across Twitter and Instagram actually sting.
Despite their newfound fame, reality stars are real people, not actors. Contestants put their lives on display for our entertainment; we must treat them with respect.
Reality TV is wildly entertaining and wildly toxic. As fans, we must look at our own online presence and stop spreading hate.
This way we can continue enjoying our favourite reality TV programs – guilt-free.
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