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Car Crash TV

Stephen White
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ITV’s announcement on Wednesday that it was permanently cancelling The Jeremy Kyle Show led me to wonder whether the format revealed any truths about conflict resolution and (perhaps voyeuristically) to see just how bad it was. So I watched the episode broadcast on May 9th, still available on YouTube. Oh dear.

Even if you have never seen a show or one by other practitioners like Jerry Springer or Steve Wilkos, you are probably aware of the style – husbands, wives, siblings, parents, children, lovers and friends in warring domestic situations brought on stage to shout their side of a conflictual story with the likelihood of explosive verbal and/or physical behavior. Most viewers would describe this as TV descending to the lowest common denominator, successful because it has the same transfixing quality as rubbernecking a car-crash. But some would claim a potential cathartic effect on the participants – giving them an opportunity to air their differences, see and understand the story from the other side’s point of view, and perhaps mutually relent.

To be honest, what follows is based on the first 15 minutes of the show, after which I could stand no more. Nevertheless, even in that short time, I got 5 ‘how not to’ ideas about helping people resolve conflicts.  

  1. The environment: It is unhelpful to have a confrontational set-up. A live audience baying and laughing will not be conducive, nor will a seating plan designed to accentuate separateness.
  2. The mediator: The demeanor of Jeremy Kyle as a mediator is about as counter-productive as it could be – alternately creepily understated and then belligerently loud. The show also appears to pre-decide that it will side with one of the protagonists – in other words, it determines each player as either a baddie or a goodie and Kyle’s behavior accentuates that decision.
  3. The data: The show is notorious for its finale; the revelation of the results of a DNA test or a lie-detector test which ‘proves’ the veracity of one side or the other – I didn’t need to watch to the end to know that. To make this even more televisual in the run-up to the revelation Kyle encourages the players to state and restate conflicting ‘facts’ which cannot all be true. This ignores the important aspect of emotional differences which are at the heart of most domestic conflicts.
  4. Pre-show: the overwhelming sensation is one of the inarticulateness of the participants. This could be so easily remedied if the producers helped the participants to rehearse their grievances before the show and to give them a few tips on how to put their views (and their facts) more persuasively. Am I being cynical in suspecting that part of the reason the lack of preparation is allowed is because the poorer performance by the players makes Jeremy Kyle look super-intelligent?
  5. Post-show: The brouhaha which resulted in the cancellation announcement yesterday came after the sad death of one of the players a week after the show in which he featured was recorded. The effectiveness of the post-show care offered to players was then called into question. That issue is indicative of the bigger challenge – agreement at any level is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new chapter. Deals, and the people who strike them, are at their most fragile early on. Agreements which move people forward need to be helped to the point of implementation.
Stephen White
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