This Hollywood Reporter story about the abuses of the reality television industry in the wake of Russell Armstrong’s suicide does a really useful job of laying out the ways in which networks treat participants in this kind of programming badly, whether they’re dramatically underpaying them; showcasing their pathologies and mental illnesses without providing follow-up treatment beyond the duration; or encouraging them to showcase increasingly baroque and vulnerable parts of their lives without concern for whether participants truly understand what they’re consenting to. But one thing the piece doesn’t engage with at all is the question of whether there’s any remedy for this kind of behavior that doesn’t rely on the compassion and decency of studios, which is not likely to be forthcoming.
I did a little digging, and it’s not clear that reality show participants are entitled to receive even a minimum wage, which seems kind of astonishing. That and compliance with overtime rules really do seem like they should be mandatory. The shows will still be cheap, even if they’re somewhat less cost-effective. We might not be able to stop people from selling their experiences, or from valuing their own lives at the immediate prize of zero, but we should still set a minimum value on them by asserting that appearing on reality television is work and should be treated as such.