Inadequate OFCOM

I am astonished that for the third time, I think, OFCOM are peddling a completely vacuous document as something significant and indeed once again claiming it is a new “publication”.

Very little has been added since it first appeared as a draft document in 2019, and even then, it simply puts into writing current practice alreday used on reality TV shows. It was the result of a hastily convened and then equally hastily disbanded committee meeting of the Digital, Culture, media and sports committee- this is hardly the “wide-ranging” investigation that Adam Baxter claims. To be more precise, the committee heard testimony from 4 “contestants” or participants who came from 2 reality tv shows. That is hardly what I would term “wide-ranging”.

It fails absolutely to define what Reality TV might be and indeed also what might constitute “vulnerable”, the two major planks of the text and of the recent publicity. I will add more details tomorrow.

Meanwhile, here is the text of an interview I did for “the Independent” today which will be printed in tomorrow’s edition (6th April):

https://inews.co.uk/news/media/ofcom-rules-broadcasters-due-care-mental-health-insufficient-former-contestants-943036

Ofcom rules for broadcasters to take ‘due care’ over mental health are insufficient, say contestants

Exclusive

There is a lot of concern after the deaths of Love Island stars Mike Thalassitis, Sophie Gradon and Caroline Flack

EMBARGOED TO 0001 FRIDAY MARCH 12 File photo dated 22/1/2019 of Caroline Flack whose mother has said social media companies "fail to protect" people from abuse and comments on the platforms had a big impact on her daughter. Issue date: Friday March 12, 2021. PA Photo. The Love Island presenter took her own life at the age of 40, on February 15 2020. A new Channel 4 documentary is to tell the story of her life and death, as well as her experience of having issues with her mental health. See PA story SHOWBIZ Flack. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/PA Wire
Caroline Flack, whose mother has said social media companies ‘fail to protect’ people from abuse (Photo: PA)
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By Benjamin ButterworthLate Editor and Senior ReporterApril 5, 2021 9:17 pm(Updated 9:18 pm)

Former reality TV contestants have warned Ofcom that new rules designed to protect their wellbeing do not go far enough.

The guidance introduced on Monday requires the makers of some of TV’s biggest show to take “due care” over the welfare of people who “might be at risk of significant harm as a result of taking part in a programme”.

The change comes amid heightened concern after the deaths of Love Island stars Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon, and the show’s presenter Caroline Flack.

But contestants of some of TV’s most successful reality shows say the change in rules will do little to help.

Tim Wilson, who appeared on Channel 4’s The Circle in 2019, told i: “Production has got used to controlling its participants and continued to do so long after the show is over.

Tim on The Circle
Tim Wilson was voted the People’s Champion (Photo: Channel 4)

“Indeed, the Ofcom legislation gives them further licence to do this. It is absurd to think that the same team of psychologists who are used in casting should be offering support afterwards.”

The Oxford-educated professor is now calling on Studio Lambert, the production company behind his series, to ask the Culture Secretary to “rethink of the Ofcom rules and recognise that what is now trumpeted is not fit for purpose”.

He added: “We have to buy into the illusion, which means we must rely on another body to protect us from genuine exploitation.”

Luke Marsden, who shot to fame on Big Brother, aged 20, now speaks regularly with reality TV stars who have struggled with their post-reality TV lives.

Davina McCall leads Big Brother evictee Luke Marsden from outside the house (Photo: Getty)

“I’ve spoken to ex housemates who signed on to the dole a few years after Big Brother because they didn’t know what to do. In their heads, they were thinking I can’t sit in an office, I was on a big show,” he said.

“Some of these contestants come out and they tell me they are very depressed a few months later, when nobody cares about them.”

He added: “They [Ofcom] need to set a very clear plan, where you talk to phycologists at key points, and they force you to have it, because some people don’t realise what they’re going through. It’s all very fluffy what Ofcom has released.”

Adam Baxter, Ofcom’s director of standards and audience protection, said the changes were made following a wide-ranging review with affected parties.

“People taking part in TV and radio programmes deserve to be properly looked after,” he said. “Our new protections set a clear standard of care for broadcasters to meet – striking a careful balance between broadcasters’ creative freedom and the welfare of the people they feature.”

A link to the OFCOM text:

Statement: Protecting participants in TV and radio programmes (ofcom.org.uk)

and a recent news story from SKY:

https://news.sky.com/story/new-ofcom-protections-for-tv-contestants-require-broadcasters-to-take-due-care-over-their-mental-health-12266294


Further clarification from me-

To be more precise, it seems wrong to throw psychiatry at a problem in the hope of fixing it. Psychiatry has a valable role to play but here it is compromised. For teh very same Psychiatrists who are used to cast the show are also used to provide counselling afterwards. Either that or we are fobbed off to organisations whose psychiatric support staff prove entirely inaccessible.

2)There is no effort in the OFCOM report to define reality tv. This was actually the first question my MP asked me- he is on the ball while others are not. Is it a game show, a constructed drama, unscripted entertainment, a variety show?

3) there is no definition of vulnerability and this, anyway, was already part of the OFCOM remit to protect both participants in tv production and to protect the audience, especially the vulnerable.

4) Much of the OFCOM document is simply well-meaning and vacuous words- verbiage to disguise a hastily published document. These words effectively try to demonstrate that any decision belongs, and any ills that happen as a consequence of participating in a show belong, entirely to the participant whether recruited or applying for the show. No amount of box-ticking psychology, however, can deal with the fallout when things go wrong, especially if the psychology team is run by the production company itself (as OFCOM seems to recommend). This is either onanistic or delusional. It also avoids responsibility. It is not about care- it is “careless” in every sense of the word.


-the only new content in the document is that shows are obliged to inform participants but that information in practice is likely to be misleading

– things change in production and it is perhaps as inappropriate as getting a magician to explain how a magic trick works before submitting it to a paying audience.

-we have to buy into the illusion which means we must rely on another body to protect us from genuine exploitation.

-That body exists! It is called Equity. Equity, therefore, needs to decide whether its role is primarily to validate a performer’s training or to protect all performers from the possibly irresponsible and unfair activity of management. The old Variety Artistes Federation understood this fully and accepted that many performers came into the business in different ways- and were, therefore, all open to exploitation by theatre bosses and, therefore, deserving of protection. The VAE merged with Equity in the early 1960s and accordingly lost its distinctive and very worthwhile remit.

-We have a situation now where upwards of 30% TV scheduling is filled with reality tv and therefore with performers often working for expenses or a derisory “displacement free”- less than minimal wage and, yet, at the same time, commanding prime time slots on TV channels for an extended period- they are utterly at the mercy of a production company that controls  the edit, the hours they work as well as their access to media and proper representation after the show has ended.


It is for this reason that I have now formally asked top executives of Studio Lambert to join me in approaching the secretary of state, the Rt Hon Oliver Dowden, to urge a rethink of the OFCOM “rules” and recognise that what is now trumpeted as new is not fit for purpose – it is the result of a half-completed job and the DCMS committee must, therefore, be reconvened and admit proper evidence that must be given by those who have experienced what it is truly like to take part in these shows.

The winner

There are a variety of show-formats on tv. Two are of interest because today they have been confused. One is “game show” and the other is “Reality TV”. Today, we tend to use the word “contestant” rather too readily when we talk of “Reality TV”. I would prefer to use the term “participant” or even “performer.”

I think the confusion is, in part, intentional. It is a smokescreen, all part of a much bigger magic trick.

A “game show” is about a contest and probably involves a prize. The great game shows of the past, like “Generation Game” and “Sale of the Century” exploit the skill of the host so that the contestants are simply incidental to the plot. Indeed, we rarely remember their names. (One of them was Major Tom). The prize might not be that great but the razzamatazz surrounding it is something drummed up by the charisma of the presenter. We can think particularly of the way Bob Monkhouse made the cheapest prizes seem drool-worthy.

Other game shows would include “Mastermind”, “University challenge”, “Catchphrase”, “the Price is right” and so on, going back to Bruce Forsyth and “Sunday night at the London Palladium”. Many of these shows drew on American formats, some were home grown- all made compelling viewing, partly because ordinary people were celebrated in a minor but significant role on the tv. And, in so many cases, those ordinary people had a great time going away with a token “blankety Bank chequebook and pen”.

Reality TV, in contrast, drew on the game show formula as a Mcguffin to drive the story and provide some sort of energy and direction. I think that most Reality TV falls into two quite different categories and neither is really a “game show” as such.

The first is the “fly on the wall” documentary (like the family) and the second is the heavily produced format like “Big Brother” or indeed the show I know best, “the circle”. It would be wrong to think of this latter category as a slice of genuine “reality”. Instead, it is a contrived situation that showcases a drama that is itself completely arranged and edited by production even if individual performers may be able, briefly to hijack the plot. That is not to say that it is ever scripted or that the participants are fed lines or follow a script, but rather that the casting is sufficiantly careful that events, confrontations and scenarios can be anticipated, developed and played out in an ordered and coherent way. This is, in other words, like making “Eastenders” without telling the actors what they are supposed to say. If the camera records events 24 hours a day, the likelihood is, given enough encouragement, the participants will finally say exactly what is expected of them. Some may call this “manipulation” others would call it “production”.

Of course, there is always the possibility that something better will crop up as cameras roll and I am sure that a good production company will adapt and amend their scenarios to showcase a brilliant performance or one, rather that production can use to good effect. I am pretty sure, for example, I was never expected to stay in “the circle” beyond a couple of weeks at most. I have to salute the great and imaginative Tim Harcourt for thinking on the hoof of giving me an Alpine Horn and instructing me to dance. Production may not have known when they cast me that I would throw myself into anything – but I will and I very much wanted the show to be the success it was.

The idea that this form of TV is about a prize or cash-gift is frankly farcical though inevitably the cast is persuaded to say that this is the reason they are “playing”. This is the reason they “applied” to be on the show. I balked at doing this- it seemed like greed and it seemed absurd: I was never winner material for one of these shows.

And, in most cases, as I have said repeatedly, these performers did not “apply”. They were recruited from social media platforms, youtube, modelling agencies and so on. The producers know exactly what sort of mix they want and who they are looking for in order to spark the drama they intend to create. This is a magic trick and we, the “participants” are a glorified version of the legendary Debbie McGee. Paul Daniels’ show would never work without her collaboration and these “Reality” shows would not work without the willing participation of the cast of “participants”, all signed up to NDAs and promising not to reveal the way the show works.

That would be fine if that was as far as it went. But the production companies have grown in influence and power and what seems to happen today is a level of manipulation and bullying that has made particiupation in Reality TV almost intollerable and goes on long after the show has been filmed and aired. The catalogue of suicide that dogs these shows should be no surprise because the participants have been party to a cruel joke, have often been signed up to a gagging clause but, more than that, have been prevented from seeking proper representation, professional help or support from anyone outside the suffocating control of the production offices.

I have spent a year feeling stifled and deceived. Instead of the secrecy and the knowing wink that dear Debbie might give to her husband Paul Daniels, we are controlled and fenced in lest we give away the secret of the show, assuming we have worked out what that is! We are treated as untrustworthy, we are unpaid fodder. We are treated like the poodle in a dog act, rather than the magician’s assistant. I will not play the poodle.

I would like to celebrate the new seasons of “the Circle” but I can only do so by celebrating what I know is good. This is the brilliant concept, the astonishingly clever editing, the direction, the story-telling and the trust that we, the “participants” place in the producers, the voice of God and the camera crew on a 24 hour basis. This is a magic show of the highest quality. There is no choice, or precious little: it is like being offered a card by a first-rate magician. There is no choice- I am palmed off with exactly what the magician intends that I should select.

https://podcasts.apple.com/ie/podcast/one-year-on-with-tim-wilson/id1479619134?i=1000499889520

In this way, six months’ ago, I predicted the winner of Season 3 of “the Circle”. I am absolutely convinced that my prediction is correct, although at the moment, as I write, there is no one in “the Circle” cast who conforms to the description I have given! That will not stop my conviction, believe me. So I wait to see if I am right.

This is not, in any way, to downplay the parts played by the other participants- whether they have been persuaded to “catfish” as a nurse or as an “uncle”, or whatever. All, in their own right, are giving astonishing performances. They are, whether they know it or not, performing as themselves. And that, take it from me, as someone who has done this job, is not an easy call.

I think, however, Participants should be paid properly for providing first-class entertainment. I think they should have proper theatrical representation and proper union support. This is not a business that can be sorted out with the magic wave of Psychiatry, however much I fully support what Pyschiatrists and psychologists do for us. Until we acknowledge what is really going on, we shall continue to have problems. But to pretend that “Reality TV” is a super-Game show is to live in a fantasy, or to be like the child who marvels at a Paul Daniels’ trick and thinks that it is “reality”. It is a trick. There is no shame in a magician’s trick. It is not a conspiracy: it is magic! And it is deserving of applause. It would be deceitful if we passed it off as “Reality”.

There is only so long people will believe a lie.

“Reality TV” is a business that needs to clean up its act before anyone else is hurt. I have personally asked senior management in Studio Lambert, who made “the Circle” to join me now and to lead the way in making the industry demonstrably safe. In a conversation I had last night, they acknowledged it was even worse in the past but hinted that there is still room to make it better. I take heart from that. While people are still dying, while people are still in despair after doing these shows, or angry, or lost, we know “Reality TV” is still doing damage to the performers they use. I hope, therefore, that others will respond to my offer and that we can make TV safe.

The Independent

Last year I won the public vote on Channel 4’s social-media-inspired reality series The Circle. It was new to me and I had a blast. I was awed by the way editors jigsawed together the unrehearsed activities of the performers, myself included, to create coherent and compelling drama.

My experience has inspired me to look more closely at the phenomenon of reality TV. I’ve binge-watched numerous shows and spoken to dozens of contestants, particularly from the longer shows where the cast members are isolated together for a period and attract prime-time audiences such as Love Island or The Circle. This is TV that allows us to “see ourselves as others see us”.

Reality TV is about character. Prize money might seem important but when it comes to making a watchable series only two things really matter – that the cast is vibrant and that the editors know what they are doing. When I was in The Circle, I felt at home. I trusted production completely and it did me proud.

But the psychological effect can also be harsh. I know of many participants who have struggled and reached for proffered help that is simply not there. Sometimes, they can feel betrayed or manipulated, or that they lost control, both during the show and afterwards. The readjustment is hard.

It is hard, also, if one is recruited as I was. The flattery in being called up out of the blue on a cold rainy day in Cambridge is the first step in a progressive surrender of self that can take a long time to recover.

To survive the next decade, reality TV needs to focus on what it does best, devising and producing original entertainment, and allow its participants to be professionally guided

In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, when Eliza Doolittle works hard and wins the bet for Professor Henry Higgins, she asks him, “What’s to become of me?” It is a question any reality TV participant could ask: how do we avoid or repair the damage? How, indeed, do we ensure that the game is remembered as a positive experience? That, surely, is in everyone’s interests.

Those who take part in reality series would perhaps suffer less and certainly be better protected if we had status within the union for the creative industry, Equity. I do not understand how a union founded in the closing days of Music Hall to cater for artistes of all types, could snub reality TV. Equity explained to me that they reasoned participants were “performing as themselves.”

But that is the point: reality TV players are still demonstrably performing; in the case of The Circle, are often also “catfishing”, sustaining a character over the course of many days – a demonstration, if ever there was one, of the Stanislavski Technique, routinely taught in drama schools around the world. Whether Equity likes it or not, we are actors in a television drama, entirely dependent on production because we are ignorant of script, plot and conclusion. We are also often ignorant of the audience response.

The current approach – backed up by contracts that often duck a performance fee – arguably mischaracterises our activity and prevents participants from unionising just as it discourages us from being represented by reputable agents. But the point remains. What are we doing if we are not performing?

Because there is no separate protection for participants, production is often forced into a pastoral role, leading to some of the work being subcontracted or performed directly by staff often unsuited or wearing too many hats. To survive the next decade, reality TV needs to focus on what it does best, devising and producing original entertainment, and allow its participants to be professionally guided.

Government efforts to make reality TV safe remain incomplete. In over a year of hearings, only four contestants ever offered any evidence before the Culture Committee. The inquiry was wound up hastily, and ultimately endorsed current practice and promised psychiatry as a cure-all.

We must make every effort to ensure the TV programming we put out nationally is safe, and that viewers can be comfortable watching it. They should not have to learn later of the catalogue of suicide and misery that dogs production. In the end, it is not just about the tiny group of reality TV performers, but about the millions of viewers who want to tune into a feel-good show.

We have to ensure that reality TV merits proper independent support for participants. Exposure on TV should be life-enhancing. If this is an industry worth saving – and I think it is – it is professionalism that is needed.

March 18th print edition

Media bias- History of Equity and VAF

There are people in the media whose experience and profile is such that they can demand and effect change for the better. Often, however, they do nothing or, worse still, they exploit those loopholes and shady practices that they must have known were wrong, even if, at the moment, they are not strictly defined as illegal.

There are two major problems: the first is that stories about the media are dull- no one wants to read about how the story was acquired- we want to hear what the story is about. The other problem with calls to clean-up any aspect of the media is that it is reported by the self-same media. In the end, it will always morph into a story about individuals because that is always safer than a root and branch clean up. Of course, that is a well-trodden path- the media loves stories about its own. It is self-obsessed, narcisistic, onanistic.

There are a number of media stories at the moment, almost all as significant, in their own way, as the phone tapping scandal a decade ago, and what is shocking is that these stories involve some of the same characters and deal with the same issues of privacy and control.

My own concern is about the future of Reality TV. It could be said that the potential abuse of a small group and their poor experience of exposure to TV is a modest and fairly irrelevant story in the times of a major pandemic. However, it changes slightly if you look at it from another angle, because today, Reality TV occupies a major role in tv scheduling and therefore the viewing public is treated to hour upon hour of reality TV shows. The public is entertained on prime time tv by a group of people who are often unpaid, who may well be manipulated and /or exploited and whose experience continues to be miserable long after the show has aired. I have counted 43 suicides linked to reality TV and this is simply the high-profile stories that have been reported. In other words, the public is watching and therefore unwittingly encouraging what amounts to a gladiatorial spectacle. People have died in the service of providing cheap entertainment.

It gets much worse because these shows rake in money and make the producers very very rich and powerful. The longer this goes on, the more influencial these production companies and these producers will become.

I am very disappointed that a union like Equity fails today to represent reality TV “stars” as a matter of principle. I have been told of a number of conversations that took place in the early part of this century when Equity was told, and accepted that Reality TV stars were performing as themselves and therefore did not merit representation by the “actors’ union”.

While I would question whether we were performing “as ourselves” or indeed why the verb “performing” itself does not merit greater consideration, the fact remains that the union Equity seems to have completely forgotten its own history and the part that was played by the Edwardian Music hall in developing union representation for performers.

Before there was British Equity, the Variety Artistes Federation was set up on 18th February in 1906 making it an older union even than American Equity which did not form until 1913. Indeed, in 1907, it was the Variety Artistes Federation that staged the first performers’ strike for 22 days, initially at the Holborn Empire and drawing support from stars like Marie Lloyd, Marie Dainton and Gus Elen. But it also had the backing of Kier Hardie, the effective founder of the Labour party. The VAF took on what was then a massive industry- with a count in 1875 of 375 music halls in London alone along with almost the same number of houses spread around the provinces. Marie Lloyd summed it up rather brilliantly thus, “We the stars can dictate our own terms. We are fighting not for ourselves, but for the poorer members of the profession, earning thirty shillings to £3 a week. For this they have to do double turns, and now matinées have been added as well.” In 1966, the VAF merged with British Equity.

The VAF was a very odd thing- because it was representing artistes who were, strictly speaking, and by today’s standards, self-employed. The power of the music hall producers, however, by the Edwardian period, had reduced performers to the status of dependant wage workers. And although “the red nose rather than the red flag” was a charge hurled at the union by other emerging unions, the VAF was far from lilly-livered and was picking up a tradition of determined collective bargaining that went back to the Music Hall Artistes Railway association of 1870 which negotiated special rates for tickets and travel between venues. From what I can see, membership was based on need and there was certainly no closed shop. By 1917, as a result, the VAF began operated a sliding scale of membership fees ensuring that everyone on stage had access to representation, that it set up standards of employment and pro forma contracts, health and safely measures and provided help in times of illness and bereavement.

Equity itself was formed in the 1930s with the backing of Robert Young and began almost immediately to operate a closed shop policy of admission which continued until the Union reforms of the 1980s and persists today in that evidence of sufficient paid professional work must be provided before a card is issued.

Sadly, I think Reality TV does not want unionisation and many Reality TV shows operate in a deeply questionable fashion – for example, those that involve performers in an immersive and protracted experience, tend to pay them a modest rate of about £70 a day, well below the fee that would be guaranteed for playing as an”Extra” on a tv show. The problem is further compounded by the veil of secrecy which hangs over much of this and few Reality TV “stars” have access to professional support from experienced agents or experienced media lawyers. Should we be grateful, then, for even this modest recognition/ gruatuity or Tip? Maybe. But this payment is explicitly not a performance fee. It is sometimes called “expenses” or a fee to “cover inconvenience”, a “displacement fee”- displacement fee? It makes me feel like something stuck in an S-bend. Whatever its name, though, this payment is not for “performance” and so specifically rules out any chance of unionisation or representation.

This is bad enough, but I am appalled that a seasoned organisation like Equity can allow this to happen -on their watch. It has not happened, after all, by accident and it has not happened in ignorance. In 2012, Robert Vogel said that Reality TV occupied 20% of scheduled TV output. I believe that figure is now significantly higher. In other words, Real actors and full-time Equity members are being driven out of TV studios by the popularity and ubiquity of Reality TV. At the same time, Equity’s stance enables abusive behaviour and sets a standard that is unacceptable and would have been championed without doubt by the Variety Artistes Federation.

Of one thing I can be sure, Marie Lloyd would have been appalled and would not have kept quiet.

The Guardian on “the Circle”

I was interviewed a short while ago for “the Guardian” and the best thing to do is just to reproduce the story as it was printed today:

You can find it here: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/mar/09/the-idea-is-bonkers-the-secrets-behind-the-success-of-the-circle

The piece is written by DOMINIQUE SISLEY

‘The idea is bonkers’: the secrets behind the success of The Circle

The isolating, app-based Channel 4 show feels eerily relevant to the past 12 months. Former and current contestants discuss the experience – and the struggle of readjusting to normal life.

t is September 2019 and Richard Madeley is twerking alone in a high-security flat in Salford. The presenter is taking part in the second season of the Channel 4 reality show The Circle, on which he is catfishing as a 27-year-old PR girl called Judy. Dressed in a motion-capture suit, he is gyrating seductively, his lips pursed in concentration. The other contestants, who are oblivious to Madeley’s true identity, are watching an anonymous rendering of his movements on their screens. “Oh my God, that’s twerking isn’t it?” screams one. “That’s twerking!”

The Circle is not a typical reality TV show. Part popularity contest, part social experiment, part dystopian drama, its premise feels eerily relevant to the past 12 months. Contestants are moved into a refurbished block of flats, where they are confined to their own space and isolated from each other. The only way they can communicate is through a bespoke, text-based social media app called The Circle.Advertisement

Contestants can decide to play as whoever they want: some choose to be themselves, while others decide to catfish (use a fake or partly fictionalised persona online for fraudulent or deceptive purposes; previous players have changed their age, race and gender). The winner is the person who, after three weeks, is rated the most popular by the other contestants.

“It sounds easy,” says Emma Willis, who presents the show. However, lockdown has made people realise “how hard it is when you take someone’s freedom and independence away from them”.

The Circlewas created by Tim Harcourt, the creative director of Studio Lambert, who is also the executive producer behind Gogglebox and Naked Attraction. The idea was ambitious, even by his standards – people sitting alone and texting each other could easily make for flat, monotonous viewing – but it was given the green light by Channel 4 in 2018. “The idea just felt completely bonkers, like taking a WhatsApp group and turning that into entertainment,” remembers Gilly Greenslade, who commissioned it.

Despite the channel’s doubts, the test pilot – filmed over two days in a flat in east London – proved to be riveting viewing. The show was scheduled for a full run a few months later. The first season was broadcast on Channel 4 in September 2018, running for two weeks from a block of flats in London. A second season followed a year later, with production moving to Salford (and adding Madeley as a special guest). A celebrity edition for Stand Up to Cancer begins tonight, with the third regular series kicking off in a week’s time.

“I suppose The Circle is a bit like Neighbours,” says Harcourt, when asked about its appeal. “It’s just minor misunderstandings eked out over time. It’s quite soapy.” In the show, though, these misunderstandings are amplified by the isolation, remote communication and constant threat of catfishing. “When I’m with my wife at home, if I got a WhatsApp from someone, I’d maybe think they were being lairy, but she would just look over my shoulder and go, no, they’re just being brusque. In The Circle, you’re by yourself. You’ve got no voice of reason.”

The success of The Circle has led to spin-off series in France, Brazil and the US, which air on Netflix. The franchise has revealed cultural differences in the way people play: Harcourt says many of the French players were belligerent (“They really went at each other”), while the Brazilians were an “absolute laugh” and wanted “to party every night”. The American contestants were among the nicest; they tended to be more ethical and less inclined to catfish. “At the end of the meal, they wanted to stand up, hold hands and pray,” says Harcourt. “It was like: ‘What?’ You’d never see the Brits do that.”

Part of what makes The Circle so compelling is its casting. Rather than filling the flats with sun-baked, cosmetically enhanced twentysomethings, the producers pull contestants from all walks of life. The winner of the most recent UK season was Paddy Smyth, a 31-year-old account manager with cerebral palsy, while the early favourite, and third-placed finisher, was Tim Wilson, a flamboyant 59-year-old theology professor. Building this diversity is no easy task: although The Circle accepts applications from anyone, it actively headhunts “underrepresented, diverse” people to encourage them to apply. “No show would make a secret of that,” adds Harcourt. “That’s part of the casting process.”

Once you are on the show, though, your endurance is tested. Contestants are kept in ornately decorated rooms (designed in part to reflect their personality), with bright fluorescent lighting and several cameras. Windows must remain closed, for privacy, and TV and internet devices are banned. To pass the long hours, players can read, cook, play Jenga or scrawl out their increasingly paranoid game strategies in notebooks. They can also schedule a sliver of time on the building’s roof terrace, or in the gym or the whirlpool bath, as long as they avoid contact with other players (ear muffs must be worn while moving around the block). It sounds claustrophobic, but former contestants speak glowingly about the experience.

The actor and presenter Nadia Sawalha, who will appear as part of a duo in the celebrity series, says The Circle was like a “magnified holiday” that made her feel like “the president of the United States”. Smyth, the most recent winner, likens it to a “five-star hotel” and says that lockdown has been substantially harder. “If you want five cans of Diet Coke in The Circle, it’s there, hey presto. If you want any type of food, it’s there, hey presto. You’re looked after,” he says. “Plus, you always know that it’s going to come to an end.”

But the paranoia can be overwhelming. Because of the isolation and the lack of physical or verbal contact, bonds are formed quickly – and it can feel shattering when they are broken. The show highlights our instinctual craving for social connection and shows how swiftly we can unravel when we are left without it. “Everything feels so heightened,” says Smyth. “We’re taken aback by how quickly we can be deceived, how quickly we can deceive others, how quickly we can form connections. I think that scares us.”

The broadcaster and journalist Kaye Adams, the other half of Sawalha’s pair, says there were moments when she felt “pathetic” and on the “road to madness”, due to all the paranoia and deception: “It did make me realise that your rational brain can go out the window really easily. You start thinking: ‘What did he mean by that apostrophe? That was a really aggressive apostrophe.’” Shesays she could not have done it on her own. “If it hadn’t been for Nadia calming me down, I would have found it genuinely upsetting.”

For regular contestants, there is also a tumultuous aftermath to deal with. Being thrust into the public eye is a shock to the system, especially if you used catfishing tactics. Busayo Twins, from series two, was targeted by trolls when she catfished as a 24-year-old white man called Josh, to “test the theory of white male privilege”. She has since deleted all her social media accounts. James Doran, who came third in the last season after catfishing as a single mother called Sammie, was also criticised for being “ruthless” and “manipulative”.

Smyth came under fire, too, with trolls claiming that he had played for “pity votes” and used his disability to win. “I’m doing really well now, but it doesn’t mean that I haven’t gone through depression,” he says. “After winning a show like that, you’re on such a high, then you go down to such a low … It was so hard for me to get my head around.”

Harcourt stresses that psychological aftercare is taken “incredibly seriously” by theproduction team. All contestants are given a thorough psychiatric evaluation before appearing on the show, while an on-set psychologist works with them during filming and in the weeks after. They are also offered access to a private healthcare company, which promises round-the-clock counselling and mental health support.

While Smyth acknowledges that the welfare provided by the production team was “amazing”, he says he still needed to seek additional help. “The production company does make you fully aware of what to expect,” he says. “They don’t sugarcoat it; they let you know. But until you go through it, you don’t really know.”

Other contestants, such as Wilson, believe the production does not do enough. Although he praises The Circle’s “artistry” and “spectacular” editors, he feels the private aftercare offered in the months after was not sufficiently responsive or hands-on. “I had the most wonderful edit and I loved the experience, but I hated what happened afterwards,” he says. “I was left feeling wrung out and abandoned. I have never been quite so miserable in my life.”

He says his appearance on The Circle wreaked havoc with his career and that the high-to-low psychological trajectory left him unexpectedly traumatised. “When people come out of these shows, what are they left able to do?” he says. “They can model Asos bikinis … But I can’t go back to the life I had before.”

Reality TV aftercare has been put under serious scrutiny in recent years. Almost 40 people globally have died by suicide after appearing on a reality show, with many former contestants speaking out about the irrevocable harm appearing on such shows has had on their mental health. In 2019, the UK government launched an inquiry into reality TV’s duty of care, but there has been little progress in terms of regulatory policy.

Because of this, Wilson – who acknowledges thatThe Circle has one of the best aftercare processes – is actively campaigning for systemic change in the industry. The “exploitative” nature of reality TV shows could be softened, he says, with improved union powers for contestants and more effective independent watchdogs. In a statement, the producers did not comment on this idea, but said that the duty of care for its contributors is of the “utmost importance” and that the company prides itself on its “robust” aftercare protocols.

Studio Lambert has been heavily criticised in the past for its work culture. Earlier this year, a former Gogglebox employee alleged that the filming conditions were “inhumane”, aggressive and not Covid-compliant, defined by excessive working hours and a bullying atmosphere. Studio Lambert said that, since March 2020, all its shows had been produced with Covid-safe protocols. It added that it “takes the welfare of its teams extremely seriously across all its productions and has a number of measures in place to encourage people to come forward with any concerns they may have”.

In 2019, Chris Ashby-Steed, a former Gogglebox contestant, spoke out about the aftercare provided by the company, saying that he felt like a “failure” who was “left with scraps” after leaving the show. At the time, a spokesperson for the production company said: “Chris has not contacted us since he made the decision to leave the show. Duty of care is of paramount importance and psychological support is available to all Gogglebox contributors before, during and after appearing on the show, should they wish to take this up.”

Harcourt says: “We constantly communicate with contestants before they go on the show, after they come out of the show and long after they’ve left the show. All of our shows at Studio Lambert involve members of the public playing a game or being on TV, so it’s something you take really seriously.”

He blames the press and social media and says that the production team does what it can to psychologically prepare contestants to deal with both elements. “The social media that is out there at the moment has definitely had an impact on people who are in reality TV shows, and I definitely hold that more responsible for their mental health than reality TV.”

Either way, viewers are still hungry for it. While it is easy to portray reality TV as the problem, Harcourt says there is still plenty to celebrate in the industry. After all, as well as being entertaining, these shows can be interesting and uplifting. “I think shows can be nice,” he says. “I think The Voice is a nice show, I think The Circle is a nice show, I think Bake Off is a nice show.”

They are also – despite years of oversaturation, more popular than ever, particularly among younger viewers. “I feel like there’s a new cycle of reality TV that has learned a lot from the past and then sort of renewed itself for that young audience. I don’t think these shows are going away.”

Bay puns

someone sent me this link this evening.

I did not realise anyone had noticed all the puns. There was certainly a different pun every day. I don’t know if I remember them all.

https://www.digitalspy.com/tv/reality-tv/a29382843/the-circle-2019-contestants-tim-cat-bey/

The Circle fans spot something you might not have noticed about Tim

Could he BEY any more adorable? By Filiz Mustafa 07/10/2019 The Circle Channel 4

The Circle viewers have spotted something pretty great that you might not have noticed about contestant Tim up until now.

Robin Williams lookalike Tim is a 58-year-old professor of theology, a former monk and a cat owner. And in fact, he entered the Channel 4 competition with his pet cat.

In a previous episode of the reality series, Tim revealed to fellow contestant Woody that he has a cat named Bey with him on The Circle.

The Circle

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While someone else added: “This guy has more charisma than all the rest.”

And although Tim has already become a fan-favourite on the show, viewers have found something else that makes him even more adorable in their eyes.

One Twitter user pointed out that Tim’s been making some amusing puns about his cat, writing a series of phrases on a white panel.

“#Beywatch, I miss Sy,” Tim wrote on one of them. “#50 Shades of Bey,” read another one.

“#Circle Beykoff,” read another one. Congratulating fellow contestant Georgina, who recently celebrated her 22nd birthday on the show, Tim wrote: “#Happy Birthbey @Georgina.”

Take a look at the Bey puns down below:

Schrodinger’s cat has been very clever and found evidence of a few more of the puns:

Circle advertising

Here is an advert for the forthcoming series 3 of “the Circle”. I believe it is due to be transmitted in March. I have now been asked a couple of times to be part of the programme.

I am very cautious and the advert makes me more so.

Having been on the show, I find the printed advert very uncomfortable reading and the TV trailer below is much the same content. Some “Previous residents” may have indeed “experienced an overwhelming urge to win £100,000”. I am pleased I was not one of them, however much I was asked what I would do with this prize or what I would do to get this prize. I was grateful and remain grateful to have won the viewers’ vote and I still do not fully understand how the prize money for the viewer’s vote was deducted from the prize money that was offered to the overall winner, but clearly the “circle of trust”, in the final reckoning, was played by the circle producers, rather suggesting that “the Circle” remains fully responsible for what goes on in its care whatever its advert may allege.

Friendship

When I was approached about doing the show, I was told “the Circle” was a game about popularity and friendship. That is the game I played. I thought it was about trust and bonding that went beyond the deceit of catfishing. It was that sense of trust, I believed, that should continue beyond the show and that should be the message of the show.

To be fair, the tv advert is more careful about what it says than the printed advert. If the printed version of the advert, particularly, describes the new season of “The Circle”, it is no longer a show I would recognise or that I was on (it is different); that is perfectly reasonable, of course, things change, but I feel uncomfortable that its advert implies I am included in the “previous residents” and that their reports are also my reports. I should add that the last paragraph of this advert, which is partly reproduced at the end of the tv trailer, therefore, is deeply misleading. It would be wrong to think that all previous residents “have reported a rise in cringing, frenemies, flirting, suspicion, sarcasm, a need for power and an overwhelming urge to win £100,000.” None of that describes me on “The Circle” at any point during filming. Indeed, I would be genuinely horrified and genuinely worried if someone believed that described me or my behaviour on the show.

I have seen the American show “survivor”. Every week, now, like clockwork, I watch a new episode, starting with the first show in 2000 and discuss it with the players who were in that series. I assume the new episodes of “the Circle” are now modelled on “survivor”. The format is there. The back-stabbing and the deceit are built into the ethic of “survivor” in a way that they were not built into “the Circle”. Maybe after the success of The Circle of trust, it was inevitable that the show would change, and that is perfectly okay with me. I just do not want the production publicity to imply that I was part of that.

On the anniversary of the death of Caroline Flack, I am worried that there is now a show that promotes itself as a vehicle for deceit and backstabbing, self-doubt, self absorbtion, suspicion and greed- all this in the name of entertainment. I am worried that this is a show to which my name is linked without any qualification. I take heart, however and I trust that, along with these changes in tone, the new series may come with the enhanced and effective aftercare regime and the fully independent professional support throughout that I have repeatedly called for. It is very difficult being a Catfish and doing it successfully. Catfish need proper support.

If this is the entertainment of the future, we need to make sure we look after the entertainers. The new “Circle” can lead the way in this. That would be a development I would wholeheartedly endorse.

Postscript:

25th February

It is with the greatest regret that I now add that I have received a message today from the circle Production company promoting the work of the same lacklustre aftercare service that failed a number of participants so spectacularly last year. I have been asked a couple of times if I will take part in some form in the circle 3 and celebrity shows, but I am afraid I cannot in all honesty now do so. I am so sorry.

I will, however, take part in podcasts already arranged with other companies and I wish the contestants in each Circle show and the production team all the very best. I trust these shows will be as joyous and as much fun as were the shows I watched last year and as was the season 2 in which I participated so enthusiastically.

I hope that, on reflection, The Production company will put in place proper and robust care in line with or better than the recommendations I have made and I trust this will lead to well-considered and effective legislation from the Government. We can lead the way in making this popular, huge and growing industry safe.

Reality TV update

Two articles have come out in the last few days, the first in the Guardian and the second online for the BBC.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-55847941

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/jan/29/gogglebox-staff-claim-toxic-culture-behind-scenes-of-hit-show

The BBC article offers little more to Jim waterson’s article than photographs and a bizarrely ambiguous statement about Tania Alexander who created Gogglebox and left suddenly in the middle of the 16th series of Gogglebox.

What seems clear to me is that bullying and aggressive workplace behaviour is never an isolated issue whoever is accused- it is generally linked to a general abuse of or struggle for power that seems to envelope the business as a whole and the BBC article confirms this when it makes it clear that there have been numerous complaints certainly to BECTU officials: I am disappointed, therefore, that so little has been done to sort this out.

It is often difficult to say where bullying begins though once it starts, isolated instances seem to explode all over the place. I have seen this happen in a number of places and in different countries and cultures- certainly, people have talked to me about the whole subject of bullying in the workplace. The Greeks have a very nice saying- the fish smells from the head. Allegations of bullying, then, suggest that a business badly needs some serious self-examination and a renewed sense of leadership and direction.

I have been concerned about the industry for some time, partly because of the persistent trail of misery that seems to dog this form of TV production. The catalogue of suicides and mental health problems associated with the various shows is harrowing and growing. It affects not only those we see on camera but also those behind the camera. If we want to save this form of entertainment, we need to act fast and go beyond what is in the futile (and now current) OFCOM regulations. I have suggestions- they simply need to be considered. Others may have better suggestions, but sitting on our laurels, or crowing about the publication of the OFCOM regulations will not now be enough. Nor is enough to change personnel or scatter psychiatry at former contestants as if they are the problem. This is an industry that needs root and branch reform globally if it is to continue and I think we have the expertise and the imagination to lead the way if we want to.

As for Studio Lambert, I can only say, at this stage, that I enjoyed the process of filming “The Circle” enormously and felt very cared for and protected while I was in the apartment bock in Salford. Whatever was going on was certainly not evident to me while we were making the show.


I agreed to do “the Circle” partly because I was aware of an article that had appeared in the Guardian following what is called “Crowngate”. It strongly suggests that Stephen Lambert set up his own studio, in part, as a moral crusade to reform the way TV documentaries and reality shows are filmed. This was published in 2007:

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2007/oct/05/bbc.tvfakery3

In 2010, RDF was sold to France. It has since been taken up by Banijay, and is responsible for a host of reality tv shows from Big Brother to Survivor, Masterchef and wifeswap as well as some scripted shows like Wallander and Black Mirror.

In response to the story that also appeared in the Daily Mail, here are a couple of comments. It makes for sad reading:

Time for Resignations and Reform

It has been clear for the last decade at least that Europe is in need of serious reform. Indeed, it is the lack of reform and the lack of democracy in its central systems that gave credibility to Mr Farage’s movement and ultimately to Brexit.

But simply because we have left Euope must not stop our interest in the wellbeing of our neighbour and must not silence us when we see grave wrongdoing.

In this case, Mrs Von der Leyen needs to lead by example and resign. She invoked Article 16 without reference to Ireland or the UK, she published the details of the EU contract with Astra Zenica (and inadvertantly revealed the secret deal struck that was probably itself against EU law, quite apart from the fact that the contract revealed that the prior UK agreement was perfectly sound). What she has done, most clearly is to demonstrate a level of hypocrisy that should not be tolerated. I spoke about this today in a Youtube video made on the back of an interview I did for a TV news show.

This evening, following exactly what I did while I was on “the Circle”, I drew a picture of Mrs von der Leyen. When I drew people in “the Circle”, it was an opportunity to get to know them. Nothing is as intimate and as revealing as the process of drawing a portrait, however cursory that sketch may be. My conclusions, therefore, about Mrs von der Leyen: I do not think she is a bad person. She has kindness and sincerity in her eyes. She wants to be liked. She likes to be led, to take advice. She needs to be persuaded to do the right thing, the bold thing and to set an example to the rest of the EU bureaucrats. I simply think this is a chance for the EU to look at the way it is working and nothing will effect this more dramatically than a clear resignation.

Here is a link to the video I made on Youtube:

It’s a bit rich

When the evidence is on film and circulating around social media, it is a bit rich to blame the protestors for violence when the only violence seen was done by the police. Mr Putin stressed to students that violence was not positive, but he also called the protests a form of “terrorism”, something I think that stretches credulity.

Meanwhile, our own Foreign secretetary has said quite clearly that the “use of violence against peaceful protesters and journalists” is wrong and the Russian government should “release citizens detained during peaceful demonstrations”. If past experience is anything to go on, however, there will be severe penalties imposed on anyone who happened to be caught on the streets on saturday, particularly if they have a recognised name. The Russian police want scalps rather than justice, it seems. They want names.

Of course, this can backfire, as in the arrest of Mr Ustinov in 2012 who was simply visiting a friend. He managed to get the Orthodox church to intercede for him and to get his 3 year prison sentence squashed. I suppose he was lucky. But a nasty experience.

Today, masked men raided Navalny’s flat and surpised his brother Oleg. It is worrying. Clearly, these are not the police- these are thugs or thieves but they may still be government-sponsored- there is no evidence that they are an independent group of masked men. This is not the way to proceed.

Nor is bluster. I think “Putin’s biggest secret” on the Black sea needs to be sorted out. If it does not belong to him, then the proud owner might now step forward. But that will not happen. There is no other owner. Putin is quite right, I am sure, that neither he, nor any member of his immediate family have put their names to any contract for the “palace”, but it does not make it any the less his.

The time has come for Mr Putin to bow out of public life and arrange a smooth transfer of power. A frank conversation with Mr Navalny might even guarantee him the immunity he has been trying to effect in law through the Duma, though the price Mr Putin may have to pay will be to surrender his new thuggish friends to the demands of transparency, and public order. Magnanimity at this stage, however, (and Putin is still in a position to be magnanimous) will cost Putin less than the utter destruction of his reputation and a bunker mentality. He knows the game is up: he might have attracted thugs and villains to his inner circle, but he is a canny politician at heart and one of the longest serving heads of state- there is something to respect in a man who knows when to exit.

The Ancient Roman term for an exit was vomitarium whoich gives us the englsih word”vomit”.Exit seems a much politer way to describe the end of an era.

For the Irada Zeynalova story, see the BBC report here and follow my links: https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c200wjny