Doing The Numbers On Reality Television

This piece in Playboy on reality television and mental illness covers a lot of familiar territory, but I was struck by this passage, which seems to undermine the claims of therapeutic shows like Hoarders that they are solely effective interventions into their subjects’ lives:

Paxton echoes this. “I would not be doing this if we were not helping. If we didn’t offer that aftercare, this would absolutely be cruel, because then you’re not giving them the chance to get better.” Besides paying for the cleanup to alleviate whatever crisis exists and, if necessary, making emergency repairs, producers offer therapy and continued work with an organizer. The money can’t be used for anything else, though sometimes it pays for family members to get counseling. A dedicated staff member now coordinates aftercare, researching therapists and following up with the hoarder a few days after the cameras leave. The goal is to have therapy start immediately because, as series producer George Butts says, “it can be traumatic for them when the shows air.” He adds, “Unfortunately, we can’t force them to take mental health therapy.”

He estimates that fewer than half actually do.

Senna expects to be among the majority of hoarders who reject aftercare. “I don’t believe in any way, shape or form I need therapy. There’s nothing wrong with me,” he says, his jacket flecked with sawdust from his lunchtime work yesterday, his black, graying hair unraveling from its wavy curls.

Obviously therapy should be voluntary, but it’s interesting that the claim to treatment after the cameras stop rolling isn’t any sort of guarantee. This is the kind of thing coverage of reality television needs more of: pure numbers. How many folks on therapeutic shows voluntarily continue treatment? How many of them relapse? How many of theme appear to have defeated their phobias and addictions in a way that the medical community would treat as sustainable? Are the instances of reality show participants attempting suicide before their participation in reality programming higher than the general population? And what about after? Do folks on extreme dieting shows suffer health problems?

I’m sensitive to the argument that we should just not watch this stuff, but I think it’s one that’s unlikely to gain broader traction. And at the end of the day, I think people do have the right to sell their experiences, even if caveat venditor is hard to live by if you’re not actually sure what you’re selling, and when vendors seem unwilling to learn all the lessons of previous entrants into the market. It will be harder to do so, but I think it’s more likely to create meaningful change by building a case for regulation of the industry through minimum wage and workplace safety laws than by urging a boycott.