The Collective Conscience of Reality Television

In a format without a code of conduct, viewers drive the limits of the exploitation and privacy invasions allowed onscreen.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Once famous for flipping dinner tables on The Real Housewives of New Jersey, reality star Teresa Giudice and her husband Giuseppe “Joe” were recently sentenced to one and three-and-a-half years in jail respectively. When Giudice and her husband pleaded guilty to numerous counts of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud in March, Bravo’s cameras captured every drama-filled moment for the show’s sixth season.

Bravo managed to film the sentencing just in time for the season finale, which even showed Teresa’s enemies crying. Teresa and Joe may be convicted criminals, but it’s difficult to not feel for the couple throughout the season as viewers watch footage of their four young daughters celebrating what may be their last Christmas together as a family for a long time. Or when the eldest daughter looks at her mother and says “I obviously know what’s going on. I’m old enough to comprehend and understand what’s going on,” as tears stream down her face.

Most reality shows in the vein of Real Housewives just feature dinner parties gone wrong and screaming matches, which viewers avidly consume. Networks are willing to show almost everything, regardless of the impact on its cast members, until their viewers get upset, lash out on social media, or threaten to stop watching entirely. What viewers will or won’t watch matters immensely to networks; in fact, they seem function as the networks’ sole “conscience.”

There is, of course, content that producers will not air, though "that varies from production company to company," a reality-television producer who asked not to be named said in an email. "Personally, I believe a producer, and then in turn the network, will air anything that does not put them at serious risk of lawsuit.”

Producers set few boundaries when it comes to airing non-litigious content with potentially damaging consequences for its stars. MTV found itself facing backlash after the series premiere of Jersey Shore when trailers for upcoming episodes showed Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi getting punched in the face at a bar by a stranger. The network pulled the footage after receiving complaints from viewers about depicting violence against women. Producers give viewers what they want to see, but at a certain point the audience begins to empathize with the cast members and turns on producers.

Showing Snooki being sucker-punched is extreme, and viewers objected. But if viewers don’t care, then the networks essentially have free rein to show what they want.  Take the case of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills: Former cast member Taylor Armstrong discussed on-camera her husband Russell’s physical abuse toward her and her five-year-old daughter throughout seasons one and two. Then three weeks before the second season premiered and just one month after Taylor filed for divorce, Russell committed suicide. While season two was packed with stories of Taylor’s abuse, Bravo suddenly found itself being blamed for Russell’s death, as critics said that the network unfairly portrayed him and drove him to suicide. The producers did edit out some scenes, like Taylor buying lingerie to spice up her marriage, but still showed a dinner party she attended with a black eye. One housewife asked her “Is this what it took for you to leave?,” to which Taylor responded “Unfortunately.” For Bravo, pushing the envelope proved beneficial—the second season of the show has so far had the highest ratings of the show’s four-season run.

A year later during season three of the Beverly Hills series, another housewife, Brandi Glanville, announced castmate Adrienne Maloof’s family secret at a dinner party. Bravo muted out the revelation, but after the episode aired, the tabloids began to investigate the secret, and ultimately the Maloofs admitted that Adrienne had used a surrogate to have her twin boys. After the incident, Maloof told Us Weekly that from the beginning of the show, her children would not be a part of the storyline. With a secret like that, Bravo couldn’t resist, even if it meant almost going against Adrienne’s contract, and found a way to weave it into the season. In an interview with Life and Style after the season, Adrienne said the revelation “destroyed her family” and put a strain on her marriage that ended in divorce.

Then there is the humiliation that some reality show participants have to endure. In 2009 on the 13th season of ABC’s The Bachelor, Jason Mesnick originally proposed to one contestant on the finale but then six weeks later in a reunion episode, he confessed that his true love was the runner-up and dumped the teary-eyed winner on live television (as if break ups weren’t difficult enough already). Mesnick in an interview later said that because of his contract with ABC he couldn't give his fiancé any advance warning before dumping her on the reunion show. Critics said that producers manipulated the show for ratings, but viewers didn’t seem to mind, and airing it paid off for ABC. The show is the highest rated episode of all time in the series with about 17 million viewers.

Sometimes networks preempt viewers' reactions. After news surfaced that "Mama June" Shannon of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is dating a man convicted ten years ago of molesting her own daughter, TLC canceled the series effective immediately. In announcing the decision, the network said, “Supporting the health and welfare of these remarkable children is our only priority. TLC is faithfully committed to the children’s ongoing comfort and well-being.” As a result, TLC hasn't faced any criticism from viewers or accusations of condoning child molestation.

This question of empathy should not be restricted to producers and networks. Because the whims and tastes of viewers drive the content of reality shows, some have argued that viewers should consider their own complicity in what happens to the show's stars. Dr. Bruce Weinstein, who writes an ethics column for Bloomberg, says “if people didn’t want to invade people’s privacy, nobody would watch these shows.”

Even with deaths and families being torn apart, there is an audience for these shows and so networks continue to produce them. People want to indulge in the drama and the hair-pulling as a guilty pleasure, but most people don’t enjoy watching others experience tremendous emotional or physical suffering. These shows continue to be defined by a strange conundrum among reality-television fans: They want to see what’s “really” happening to other people, as long as it isn’t too real. For producers, who don’t think in terms of sympathy, it’s a delicate balance of exploiting their stars’ stories for ratings while trying to determine what viewers will shun. There is no sympathy "code" for producers to follow when choosing what material to air, but it may be wise for them to consider creating one instead of only relying on fan reaction.