Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Weekend Herald and Herald on Sunday.

The Big Read: How reality TV creates a baying mob

As Survivor takes applications for its first NZ season, experts warn of the effect on young viewers.
Can you scheme, bitch and bully? Are you manipulative and arrogant? Got a track record in backstabbing and betrayal? Producers of Survivor NZ would be delighted to hear from you. Photo / File
Can you scheme, bitch and bully? Are you manipulative and arrogant? Got a track record in backstabbing and betrayal? Producers of Survivor NZ would be delighted to hear from you. Photo / File

Can you scheme, bitch and bully? Are you manipulative and arrogant? Got a track record in backstabbing and betrayal? Producers of Survivor NZ would, no doubt, be delighted to hear from you.

The show has aired for 32 seasons in America and now it's coming here. It will feature contestants living on remote islands in a dog-eat-dog environment where they compete in challenges with limited supplies.

Competitors will form alliances and eliminate each other one by one in a bid to win a huge cash prize on the upcoming TV2 series.

It's the latest show designed to fulfil our apparently insatiable appetite for reality TV. Meanwhile, tomorrow night, 23 Kiwi women battle it out to win the heart of an eligible man in season two of The Bachelor NZ.

The bachelorettes will be cooped up in a mansion as they vie for a rose from 32-year-old Jordan Mauger.

Producers at TV3 will be hoping for fireworks between the girls as they plot their way into his affections.

But is the exaggerated version of real life being portrayed on these shows bringing out the inner shark in all of us? There are some who fear our saturated diet of often cruel reality television is making us -nastier, less tolerant and more ruthless in our real lives.

Presumably in a bid to boost flagging ratings, singing contest The X Factor introduced a twist with the "chair challenge". Successful performers were invited to take a stage-side chair. Once the chairs were full, judges would order someone out in favour of a different singer, while being theatrically swayed by the baying audience.

It's melodramatic - but easy to picture the Colosseum crowd and the emperor wavering before offering a thumbs down.

The Bachelor Jordan Mauger. Photo / Supplied
The Bachelor Jordan Mauger. Photo / Supplied

Dr Ronald Kramer, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Auckland, believes there is a link between televised mean-spirited behaviour and the way ordinary people conduct themselves.

"Programmes like Survivor are problematic because they show a bunch of humans being treated like circus animals," he says. "It is not unlike training an elephant to walk on its hind legs or a lion to jump through a burning hoop. It is unnatural behaviour and a cruel thing to do. But the worrying thing is, even though people know it is quite wrong they still queue up to see the results, much like the huge audiences tuning in to reality shows."
Kramer thinks even a series like The Bachelor, seen as harmless and fun, sends disturbing messages.

"Its gender politics are appalling. Do we really want to be promoting the idea that the real role of women is to sit around dolling themselves up to fight over a man they have never met - what is this saying to young people about relationships?"

Kramer suspects watching contestants being bullied and put down on popular shows like the X Factor desensitises viewers to the feelings of others.

"It encourages a culture of schadenfreude, where people take pleasure in the misery of others," he says. "A lot of these formatted shows, like The Bachelor, Survivor and The Apprentice, have been imported from the United States and Britain, which kind of makes sense, given New Zealand is now adopting increasingly similar social models to these countries - more than it would perhaps like to think.

The Bachelor NZ contestant Chrystal Chenery. Photo / Supplied
The Bachelor NZ contestant Chrystal Chenery. Photo / Supplied

"We have the same type of conservative politicians in charge who promote big business and an every-man-for themselves corporate culture where life is seen as a winner-takes-all competition. Many reality shows simply reinforce these attitudes."

Kramer's concern is backed by some evidence. A number of overseas studies have indicated watching reality TV can impact real-life behaviour.

A recent report led by Bryan Gibson, a psychologist at Central Michigan University, found watching programmes that feature what is called "relational aggression" - bullying, exclusion and manipulation - can make people more aggressive.

That unfriendly behaviour is good for TV ratings but it might be bad for viewers, Gibson concluded.

"Gossiping and nastiness is prevalent on these shows, so we wanted to find out whether it affected how aggressive people were after they watched," he told National Public Radio in the US.

Matilda Rice, contestant on the Bachelor NZ. Photo / Supplied
Matilda Rice, contestant on the Bachelor NZ. Photo / Supplied

Each participant in the study watched either an aggressive surveillance show like Jersey Shore or Real Housewives, an uplifting surveillance show like Little People, Big World or a crime drama like CSI.

After watching one episode, ¬people were asked to do a task that measured aggression, involving hitting a keyboard button as quickly as possible. Participants believed they were racing someone in another room and whoever won could blast the other person with a loud, shrill sound.

"It turns out those who watched Jersey Shore or Real Housewives gave louder, longer blasts than those who watched the more violent crime dramas," Gibson added. "This is one form of media that may appear harmless, but I think our research provides a little bit of evidence that there can be some negative outcomes as well."

Danny Osborne, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland, goes even further. He believes reality shows like The Apprentice and anything fronted by foul-mouthed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay send powerful negative messages to viewers. It leads them to plug into the underside of human nature, he says.
"It is worrying that people are looking up to ruthless and unpleasant characters like Donald Trump and Gordon Ramsay," he says. "Viewers are prepared to condone appalling behaviour just because these people host popular TV shows.

"In real life they would hate to be anywhere near these sort of individuals, never mind have them as a boss. But it can lead people to believe it is okay to behave that way at work themselves. This can lead to bullying or turning a blind eye to bullying because it has been normalised on TV."

The Bachelor NZ contestant Dani Robinson.  Photo / Supplied
The Bachelor NZ contestant Dani Robinson. Photo / Supplied

Osborne thinks it is concerning young people in particular idolise rich and famous people from programmes like Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

"In America there was a spate of teenage girls who ended up with nasty facial trauma injuries because they wanted to have pouting lips like Kylie Kardashian," he says.

"These kids were sucking on the necks of soft drinks bottles to try and produce a similar effect.

"But it is not just teenagers who have a voracious appetite for these kind of shows. They provide conversation-starters around the water cooler in the workplace and deflect adults from discussing real issues and problems. It all leads to an erosion of values."
You might think you're immune to the effects of trash TV but what's happening in playgrounds should concern every parent.

Iain Taylor, president of the NZ Principals' Federation, says kids are increasingly mimicking the kind of stroppy attitudes portrayed by characters on shows like Jersey Shore.

X Factor. Photo / File
X Factor. Photo / File

"The whole issue is a worry for us as children replicate what they see on TV and this kind of disrespectful behaviour is showing up in classrooms," he says. "The values being put forward on shows like Jersey Shore are pretty vacuous.

"It is all very well saying it is just entertainment but the drinking and overt sexual behaviour seen on these programmes leads kids to believe this is the norm, when it is not. It is no coincidence we are now seeing more youngsters behaving like this in and out of school.

"It is the same as the botox and bling culture being promoted on shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians. There is nothing positive about any of it."

There is evidence the reality TV format is beginning to run out of steam.

In Britain, the last series of Celebrity Big Brother averaged 1.9 million viewers, compared to the 5.2 million who tuned in when it launched in 2001. The Apprentice shed almost a million viewers in the UK last year and the The X Factor lost almost three quarters of a million.

In the US, former No 1 rating show American Idol, fronted by "Mr Nasty" Simon Cowell, has been axed because of waning popularity. Survivor pulls in about a third of the 28 million viewers it had in its heyday. There are signs the decline has also reached New Zealand.

In November, MediaWorks announced The X Factor NZ and Master chef NZ are off the TV3 rosters for this year, as is ratings hit Dancing with the Stars. But other MediaWorks reality offerings including The Block NZ and The Bachelor NZ were safe.

X Factor NZ Judges, L to R. Natalia Kills and Willy Moon. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
X Factor NZ Judges, L to R. Natalia Kills and Willy Moon. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

But Trisha Dunleavy, associate professor of media studies at Wellington's Victoria University, believes the recent arrival of international television production giant Warner Bros in New Zealand, indicates the genre is far from dead.

"Reality shows are relatively cheap to make and we could see more creative formats of these programmes appearing," she says.

"Some of the present formats are showing fatigue with viewers but it is difficult to see a sudden return to drama that is just too expensive to produce.

"The general formula for creating a reality hit is a combination of humiliation, crisis and transformation, which perhaps says as much about those who are watching as those who are making these shows."

But there is hope that Kiwis will not turn into the kind of crowd that used to roll up to colosseums -demanding increasingly extreme entertainment.

There was national outrage when The X Factor NZ judges Natalia Kills and her husband Willy Moon monstered contestant Joe Irvine, comparing him to a serial killer and accusing him of copying Moon's image. The couple were fired from the show the next day and quickly left the country after receiving death threats and abuse.

"That was a classic case of the bullies being bullied," Osborne says. "The New Zealand public might have a self-imposed limit to the amount of nastiness they are prepared to put up with in the name of entertainment."

Traumatised by Kills

There was national outrage when The X Factor NZ judges Natalia Kills and her husband Willy Moon monstered contestant Joe Irvine.
There was national outrage when The X Factor NZ judges Natalia Kills and her husband Willy Moon monstered contestant Joe Irvine.

Ten months after he was abused by X Factor judges Willy Moon and Natalia Kills for his singing performance and image, Joe Irvine still can't bring himself to watch any replays.

He says he is disappointed he did not receive much support from the makers of the TV3 reality show after the shocking verbal attack.

His brutal dressing-down made headlines around the world and Moon and Kills were booted from the show in disgrace after a furious backlash from the public.

"When it happened I was mad but I was aware kids would be watching so I fought back the urge to have a go at Willy and Natalia," he says. "It was awful."

Since the X Factor, he has been gigging around New Zealand and soon plans to release a string of singles. He has also written a song about his experiences on the show called Addiction.

"The track is about where Natalia Kills is at now and the highs and lows I went through because of her," he says. "I wish her and Willy well. I just hope they never do anything so stupid and uncalled for again."

Irvine advises any other people considering appearing on a reality show to take plenty of support with them.

"I got no assistance from anyone afterwards and it has left me thinking reality shows are just staged for a big publicity stunt. Anyone appearing on one of these things needs to be mentally prepared for anything."

- Herald on Sunday

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