The recent furore over the way that participants on The Jeremy Kyle Show were treated has prompted me to reflect on my own experiences of being a participant on TV game shows.
Over a seven-year period in the Noughties, I was a contestant on several TV game shows and had reasonable degree of success. I appreciate that this genre is very different from the Jeremy Kyle Show, but one thing that I noticed was that a large majority of the contestants (myself included) were very extroverted and enjoyed the glamour, attention and excitement of being allowed into the bubble of the TV world, yet were often quite insecure behind the mask.
The process of getting onto these shows tended to follow a particular format: written application form, an audition where you had to stand up and talk about yourself, a quiz of some sort that was pitched at the level of the show and a dry run of the show itself. I worked out very quickly how to tick the boxes on the clipboards of the researchers; be as confident as possible, have one or two ‘humorous’ anecdotes to share, be willing to look a bit silly. It also became clear that they were looking for as diverse a group of people as possible. Not many early-middle-aged medical professionals of Indian ancestry applied for game shows so I was at a definite advantage.
No feedback was given at the time of the auditions and, if you were successful, the production team would be in touch subsequently. The filming days also followed a particular format: arrive, be briefed by the researchers, be told which of the three shirts you had brought to wear, get made up, have a brief royal visit from the celebrity presenter, play some party games to warm up, have a rehearsal on set to learn how to walk on and off, how to use the buzzers and where to look and not to look. It was always very exciting under the lights and the process of how TV was made was also very interesting.
I realised early on that contestants were really just props, in the same way as the podium the presenter stood at, the lights and the theme music were. To a greater or lesser extent, contestants would be herded like cattle from the green room, to the set and then back again. This didn’t really bother me, as I knew that the production team were on tight schedules and, at the end of the day, their priority was to make an entertaining programme that would get good viewing figures and a recommission. I didn’t go on these things to be treated like a diva but generally people were nice enough.
Two shows however sprung to mind after recent tragedy around Jeremy Kyle was reported. The first was a show where seriously big money could be won. At the end of it, four of us stood to share a prize fund of £50,000, simply by answering one question correctly. Three of us (myself included) answered wrongly, meaning one person won the whole lot. Objectively, this was not like losing your short on the horses. None of us had staked any of our own money and we had all had a nice day and night out courtesy of the TV company. It wasn’t as if I needed the money to live, yet when I woke up the next day and for the next few weeks, I felt sick to the stomach that I could have won big and didn’t. Even now the word ‘Alcatraz’ haunts me! One of the others was a young boy in his early twenties – after the show he was absolutely distraught and in pieces. We tried to support him as best we could but there was a noticeable lack of any input from the production team, at the time nor subsequently.
The second was a karaoke-based quiz show, where there was the potential to win big as progress was made up a money ladder. As something of a performer, this was right up my street and I ‘played the audition game’ as usual and was selected to be on the show. There was a board with various categories to choose from for each round. I also had two friends there whom I could use as lifelines. I had made through three rounds when an alarm rang to say that it was the end of the show and I would have to come back to the next one to carry on.
Here was where it became interesting. This was 2008, just after there had been a number of scandals about TV competitions being rigged, so there was a lot of pressure on the producers to show that all was above board. As the board with the categories on was already seen, they had sure that nobody would use the break to look up song lyrics that might be behind those categories. In reality, the categories were so broad, and some also so vague, that this would have been like searching for a needle in a haystack. As we were walked off the set, I was told I could not talk to my two friends. I would be taken to a hotel with a researcher whilst my two friends would be taken to another hotel with another researcher. I had my mobile phone taken from me; the researcher removed the TV and radio from my hotel room. We could not go to the hotel bar as MTV was playing on the screens. I was allowed to make one supervised call home. I was not allowed to look at any magazines or newspapers.
The next morning, I was supervised over breakfast and then escorted back to the studio. My phone was still confiscated and I was put into a dressing room with no TV, radio or even windows. I had not talked to anyone but the researcher for over 14 hours. By this stage, I was getting edgy, due to a combination of sensory deprivation and being made to feel like some kind of criminal. One of the senior researchers came and told me to remember to really play to the crowd when I was out there.
This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I told them that there was no way I could feign any ‘I’m mad, me’ type act whilst I felt stressed, anxious and alone. I told them that I thought they had treated me like some kind of prisoner of war and that even as a relatively mature adult who had a stressful day job, this was breaking me.
All this was too much for the young researcher and so the series director came to see me, however I left that conversation feeling he had no insight into people and how their feelings worked at all. I pointed out to him that if I, as a relatively stable person, was feeling this way, other more vulnerable types could break completely in the future. I also pointed out that this genre of shows generally attracted quite insecure and vulnerable people and the process that they had put in place to ensure no foul play actually put contestants’ psychological wellbeing at risk. Looking back, this was not what contestants should have been saying. We were meant to be grateful for the opportunity and to do as we were told. I went out, did my thing and won a bit of cash but the whole thing left a very sour taste in my mouth. I did not apply for any subsequent shows from that point.
There was never been any support offered to me to see if I was subsequently alright, both after big losses and big wins. I suspect that this was the case for most contestants; once used the props were binned and forgotten about.
I have been lucky enough since then to have been involved in television shows as “the talent” and in those situations been treated like royalty (in itself was most odd, as I know I am just a very ordinary person).
Those opportunities also confirmed to me that the priority is ultimately the final product, and participants can often be just collateral. The vast majority of shows with which I have been involved have been run by fantastic people but there need to be processes and procedures in place to ensure that people are not harmed as an unintended side effect.
Shows like Jeremy Kyle are an accident waiting to happen, given the themes of the programme and the fact that the participants were often already traumatised and vulnerable. I hope this will be a turning point for the industry. Yes, we all want to watch entertaining and informative programmes, but when they involve people who are not familiar with the artificial world of the media, consideration for them has to be a mandatory requirement, not an afterthought.
Ravi Jayaram is a consultant paediatrician and former presenter of Channel 4 series Born Naughty?, who between 2001 and 2009 was a contestant on several game shows