Jake O'Kane: The Jeremy Kyle Show and its ilk appeal to our freak show fascination

While the bosses at ITV quickly washed their hands of Jeremy Kyle, they're clearly less inclined to also cancel Love Island, even though there have been two apparent suicides of contestants on that show

TV presenter Jeremy Kyle, whose daytime TV show has been cancelled permanently by ITV following the apparent suicide of a participant. Picture by Peter Byrne/PA
Jake O'Kane

THERE was a time when travelling freak shows toured the country, charging an entrance fee to members of the public who wished to view unfortunates with unusual physical characteristics.

Most of these shows had staples such as the bearded lady, the midget and the caterpillar man, someone missing legs and arms. Until this week, the modern alternative was The Jeremy Kyle Show, which exhibited individuals faced with emotional and intellectual, rather than physical, challenges, for viewer entertainment.

That this show ran for almost 14 years and garnered ITV’s highest daytime audience reflects badly both on our society and what we have come to see as acceptable entertainment. On each show Jeremy Kyle would display his latest example of the emotionally damaged for the entertainment of a baying studio audience and the one at home.

While his show fell under the umbrella term ‘reality television’, we learnt this week that much of it was rehearsed and prepared. If an alleged drug dealer turned up wearing a suit, they would be handed a hoodie and torn jeans by production staff to better fit their stereotypical image. Warring family members were corralled into separate dressing rooms where researchers would goad them into an enraged state before sending them out in front of the cameras.

Steve Dymond appeared on the show in an attempt to prove to his fiancé he hadn’t been unfaithful; this was scuppered when Jeremy Kyle revealed a lie detector test which indicated he was lying. Mr Dymond subsequently took his own life, which precipitated the cancellation of the show and much soul-searching about the ethics of reality television.

What Steve Dymond didn’t realise was the unreliability of lie detector tests. While Jeremy Kyle claimed the test had an accuracy of 96 per cent, 421 psychologists surveyed in 1997 estimated a truer figure was 61 per cent, or not much better than chance.

Personally, the longest I ever managed to watch the show was five minutes. I found Kyle to be an obnoxious little toad who revelled in his ability to manipulate and invariably humiliate those unfortunates he called guests. Like some medieval torturer, he poked and prodded his victims until he elicited the desired reaction of either violence or tears.

Not that The Jeremy Kyle Show was in any way original; it’s voyeuristic, confrontational origin stretches across the Atlantic to a famous episode of the Geraldo Rivera show in 1988.

On that episode Geraldo unwisely decided to deal with the topic of racism while featuring a group of skinheads both on stage and in the audience. He not only suffered a broken nose but thought his career was over after a full-scale brawl broke out. Only later did it become clear he’d inadvertently spawned a new, and very lucrative, television genre – the confrontational talk show.

The Jerry Springer Show picked up what Rivera had started and, concentrating on sexual infidelity, managed an 18-year run which saw its host become a multimillionaire and the show at one stage even beat The Oprah Winfrey Show to top the ratings list. Springer himself admitted in an interview in 2000 that, "I would never watch my show. I’m not interested in it. It’s not aimed towards me. This is just a silly show."

While the bosses at ITV quickly washed their hands of Jeremy Kyle, they’re clearly less inclined to also cancel Love Island, even though there have been two apparent suicides of contestants on that show. A cynic would say the fact that the Kyle show had an audience of one million viewers, while Love Island boasts an audience of 3.8 million, may be the reason they’re balking at losing both.

Why we watch such shows comes down to our baser human nature – the need to feel superior by judging others inferior, and our voyeuristic attraction to violence and disaster. Why people agree to go on such shows, exposing themselves to the inevitable public ridicule, is somewhat more complex, but one factor has to be society’s obsession with the cult of celebrity.

In 1968 the American artist Andy Warhol predicted, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes"; sadly, he could have added, "And those 15 minutes may cost you your life". With the advent of social media, everyone today has the ability to create and broadcast their lives to a worldwide audience, yet few fully appreciate the possible negative consequences of doing so.

The final obscenity of The Jeremy Kyle Show was the audience he played to – the poor, unemployed and vulnerable were the very same people he humiliated as guests on his show.

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