Dark Side of Reality TV: Aston University Scholar Exposes Unsettling Incidents and Industry Reforms


In the whirlwind of reality television, drama and scandal are all part of the viewer’s appetite, crafted meticulously to heighten the intrigue. Yet, behind the gloss and the glaring lights, lurks a darker narrative, one of planned chaos, backstage bullying, and questionable morality.

Helen Wood, a renowned media and cultural studies scholar at the University of Aston, brings these tales to light, drawing from a rich well of critical investigations into the thriving reality TV industry. As an esteemed parliamentary advisor, she has probed into the necessary industry reforms, revealing startling backstage incidents absent from our screens.

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“We’ve been told of backstage intimidation and arguments,” shares Wood. “Instances of participants facing mental health crises on set and being immediately transferred to therapeutic facilities. There are anecdotes of alcohol and drugs being used as tools for eliciting reactions. One particularly surprising story even speaks of a water supply being intentionally cutoff to foster more tension on set.”

The contestants, or rather, the unwitting pawns in these reality dramas, are left to grapple with the aftermath. Anticipating the repercussions of their actions, the handling of their portrayal in the press, while striving to cope with the potential overflow of online vitriol.

The ‘villains’ who appear on our screens don’t arrive as ready-made antagonists. They are crafted behind the scenes, manipulated into specific behaviours. A recent court victory by a House Rules Australia contestant highlighted this backstage reality. Victim of harassment and bullying by the show’s producers, she was forced into being overtly critical, thus painting her as the perceived antagonist.

“You’re mostly unaware of the afterlife of your persona on these shows,” Wood explains. “The contracts signed by participants often have unlimited, universal reach, meaning any slip on a show could end up recirculating on platforms like YouTube, leaving a potentially detrimental impact.”

As evidence, Wood recalls the emotionally-scarring experience of a participant, Dwayne Davison, labeled as the ‘most hated guest’ on the Jeremy Kyle show via YouTube. The online backlash gravely impacted his life.

Regrettably, the ill-effects of reality TV spills into casting decisions as well. The New Zealand versions of popular reality shows like ‘Married at First Sight’ and ‘FBOY Island’ faced backlash for casting men with histories of domestic violence.

However, amidst the barrage of complaints, there seems to be a beacon of change. A growing wave of advocacy pushing for a swifter transition into more ethical industry practices is afoot.

How is this troubled industry mending its cracks, one might ask? What protective measures are yet to be implemented for ensuring a safer environment for the participants?

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