Friday, April 21, 2023

Safeguarding and reality TV in Spain

 By Kieran McCartan PhD, Kasia Uzieblo, PhD, and David S. Prescott, LICSW

We often hear that TV mirrors reality, and fear that people mimic the behaviors they see on TV and elsewhere in the media. It is fair to say that we, as a global culture, have become intertwined with TV, its stars, and its behaviors as well as attitudes. Over the past 20 years or so we have seen the continued growth, for better or worse of reality TV and the evolution of shows like Big Brother. However, while they popularity of these shows may wane and wave, their ever presence on our screens has not. Changing popularity may mean changing production and editorial decisions, but what it should not mean is an increase in participant risk, changing levels of safeguarding or poor/inappropriate messaging. Unfortunately, all of which happened recently on the Spanish version of Big Brother.

The show Big Brother, which is syndicated around the world, with many countries having their own version of the show and sharing other countries’ versions, has always been risqué and has often involved questionable social and moral decisions. For example, the notion of confining people in a house for a period to see how they act and interact may have started as a social psychology experiment but moved away from that over time. Decisions on casting, looking for risky, challenging, or controversial stars, the increase in alcohol consumption, more sexualization and riskier, sometimes questionable challenges, was always going to create a perfect storm. This is what played out in the Spanish version.

In the 2017 edition of the long running series, after an on screen, show-sanctioned party a male contestant sexually assaulted a female contestant; despite her clearly not consenting and saying no, it continued. The footage, although not aired, showed that the assault continued after the victim had passed out and was unconscious. It was only at this point that the producers stepped in. Although the producers and the show did remove the male contestant from the show, that’s all they did. There is no indication that they supported the female contestant or that they offered her help at the moment of the assault. Quite the opposite, they showed her the video the next day to gauge her reaction, thereby making her relive her assault. She then requested to talk to the male contestant but wasn’t allowed. She was compelled to talk to a psychologist and was told that that the matter shouldn’t leave the room. The resulting court case ended with the male who committed the abuse getting a prison sentence of 15 months and the production company being fined, all of which seems to be too little too late.

Reality shows have a responsibility to safeguard, protect contestants, and prevent harm; none of which was done in this case. Given the nature of this show, all areas of the house are being recorded, and watched live, so the producers should have stepped in earlier. Because alcohol was involved, those in charge of the show helped create the conditions where the assault occurred; they could have foreseen this as a potential outcome and planned for it. Also, the editorial decision to show the victim the footage and relive it was a deliberate choice made by the company to shock and awe; this was the wrong editorial decision. Apart from planning a risk register, thinking about the outcomes of introducing a lot of alcohol to the house (and encouraging the consumption of it and related activities) the show could have proactively responded to the victim, removed her from the show and grave to help and support. None of these things happened; it resulted in sexual assault that negatively impacted the victim.

As stated previously, this incident was preventable and seemed to happen based on salacious editorial decisions. TV and media should cause no harm to its participants and should set a tone and standard for the way that we see and respond to sexual abuse. This case leaves a damaging legacy, as it tells viewers that sexual assault is ok, that victims do not have a say in their needs, and that people should accept certain things are inevitable in certain situations, all of which are wrong! It also shows that despite all the attention to sexual violence, people still don’t always know (or ignore) how to respond appropriately to prevent such behavior on the one hand, and to provide adequate support to victims on the other hand. Hence, it is clear that we must continue to sensitize people about the issue and offer them concrete tools to respond.   

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