In the past decade, more than 21 reality television stars committed suicide. Rather than assuming any serious criticism or blame for the deaths, television networks are fueling their own ratings cycle. Current reality TV is pure schadenfreude—pleasure in the humiliation of others—even after death.
In February, the New York Post reported the number of former-star suicides. Since then, outlets from the trashy to the obscure populated the web with gallery articles lamenting this “epidemic.” How, they ask, could this happen? How could entertainers who are widely exploited for their insecurity and eccentricity find themselves depressed and without hope following the intense spotlight? How could people “famous for being famous” lose sanity when the cameras turn off? The galleries carefully document each star, their program, and the method of death, drawing morbid clickbait readers. Lost in the shuffle of this tragedy is the fact that star deaths only increase the appeal of reality TV. In our sick voyeurism, suicide only draws more viewers.
One of the few serious pieces on the matter notes that the risk of suicide is empirically higher in reality stars. Given that the rate for the American population as a whole is 12.6 per 100,000 and the number of participants in reality programs since 2005 is estimated around 42,000, the risk of suicide is 4x higher for ex-stars. The Post declared the reasons behind the phenomenon as a “chicken-or-the-egg” question: Are crazy people auditioning for reality TV or does reality TV make people crazy?
Surface-level diagnosis on the part of the moderately informed placed blame on the screening process and exit counseling. While producers should morally be on the lookout for unstable applicants that could be negatively impacted, they actually tend to choose those with baggage. Drama and controversy fuel ratings. As behavioral psychologist and former reality consultant Jo Hemmings explains, producers look for dirt when conducting preliminary psych evaluations. So a process that could involve prepping civilians for star life instead gathers content for the “reality” program. The networks and producers are complicit in a model that drives exploitation.
On the exit side, participants are either not prepared for the fame and notoriety post-show or they are not ready to come back to earth after 15 minutes of fame. Commentator Simon Chandler describes applicants as narcissistic, celebrity-hungry people who view a reality show as their last chance for success. When the program doesn’t go as they hoped, the results can be disastrous. Even those who are liked by viewers encounter a world where they don’t have the talent to maintain their newfound fame. For those who are villainized, the exit process is much more dramatic.
Bachelor creator Mike Fleiss admits to developing the show’s contestants into characters that will fit the audience’s preference for heroes and villains. Techniques such as editing, “soft-script” writing, or even on-set commands can make participants into caricatures of “the bitch” or “the douche.” Famous for nothing except being famous is hard, but notoriety for being “the bitch” on The Bachelor creates isolation—in addition to the low of no longer being in the spotlight. From a production standpoint, the reality TV system is broken and dangerous. But from a consumption perspective, the increase in suicides is even more concerning.
In characterizing the popularity of reality TV, Tom Alderman called the medium “Shame TV.” Viewers like to see participants humiliated and so programs represent true schadenfreude: pleasure from someone else’s misfortune. Take the aforementioned Bachelor franchise. While people tune in to see courtship and love, they also hinge on the satisfying weekly elimination. More amusement is drawn from a woman contestant getting “crushed” than from the final marriage proposal. Reality TV becomes lowbrow because we watch for the humiliation. This fact has dire consequences. Contestants from The Bachelor franchise represent 3 of the 21 deaths. Despite this, viewers still tune in, contestants still apply, and media outlets still report when former stars kill themselves. Suicides are afterthoughts of our consumption and our incessant need for stimulation from other’s pain.
In a sick way, the threat of death only creates more drama. Suicide is the unspoken way to lose a competition. Will our next contestant be so humiliated that they kill themself? Tune in to find out. As the divide between quality programming—from the likes of HBO and Netflix—and reality TV increases, the form will become even more of a guilty pleasure. Imagine a future in which all cable is lowbrow and high-production content migrates exclusively to the web. Will people still tune in to The Bachelor? If the ultimate shame is killing yourself, then unfortunately schadenfreude TV is only on the rise.