As Channel 4 broadcasts hand-wringing documentaries about the mental health of reality stars, a reminder of how it has routinely made dangerous and exploitative TV shows for ratings and profit, fatuously disguised as ‘social experiments’.
The term ‘safeguarding’ – meaning to ensure someone’s physical and emotional wellbeing – has become something of a buzzword in the past decade or so but more often than not, it’s part of a discussion on a past lack of same. The discourse on ‘lessons learned’ is a steady stream, though the quality of those lessons is more debatable, and where light entertainment is concerned, no sooner are we through one set of retrospective mea culpas, more regrets quickly surface. Let’s hazard a guess here, and say it will always be so. It’s only rather recently that the good people of the UK were tuning in to watch minor celebrities chowing down on live insects, for example. Lessons have been learned, of course, so now said celebrities only have to writhe around in insects; this is, clearly, much better. Essentially, at no point do we ever seem to reach a particularly high or unassailable point from which to look back at the past and say, ‘that was a dreadful idea’.
Speaking of dreadful ideas, and to come back to the old truism that the past is a foreign country, it’s almost twenty years since the currently-beleaguered Channel 4 aired one of its oddest programmes. Back when judging an array of people’s genitals on air was just a pipe dream, a castle in the air, there was Shattered, made back in 2004.
The premise of Shattered was quite a simple one, if profoundly, profoundly wrongheaded. Cashing in on the sudden success of Big Brother – where a group of strangers live in a closed environment, monitored at all times by cameras – the format was initially the same, with another batch of young hopefuls sent to live together, monitored at all times. The big difference was that, rather than loading them up with cheap wine and trying to engineer a TV-friendly grope or two, the idea was to entirely deprive the group of sleep. The last one awake would win a significant cash prize: £100,000 in its entirety, to be exact. Any TV-friendly groping – never exactly discouraged, of course – would as such come from a place of fatigue and hallucination, rather than inebriation.
Who signed off on this? The impact of a lack of sleep is pretty well known about anecdotally, with sleep deprivation long used as a method of torture. Experiments in the field have generated some concerning results, even causing death in animals who had this inflicted on them. The UK mental health charity Mind is clear on its effects: it has been linked to an upsurge in suicidal thoughts and psychotic episodes in the vulnerable. Still, Channel 4 decided that seven days without sleep was an acceptable parameter, incentivised it, and away they went.
To make it all that bit more fun, if any of the ten contestants closed their eyes for more than ten seconds, then a grand was deducted from the overall fee. A nice touch, that, essentially not only punishing people for a completely normal and functional response to extreme fatigue, but potentially turning the other participants into a kind of sleep Stasi whereby they all lose out if someone starts to nod off, and so are encouraged to police everyone else for the greater good. And there’s more. In another deferential nod to Big Brother, where the contestants had to take part in various ‘challenges’, Shattered made its contestants go through a series of specifically sleep-inducing challenges. Yes, they literally made them watch paint dry. They read them bedtime stories, repeatedly. These are not physically painful things to happen to a person, sure, but given the goal of the competition, they’re psychologically as nasty as they’re twee and fluffy. It’s torture reinvented for the generation who had just commando-crawled through Cool Britannia and were about to embrace social media. This was the year Facebook was created; Shattered was an early calling card for a brave new world of ‘sending hugs’ blended with new possibilities for brain-melting levels of venom and judgement. It was there at the very start.
I watched this show at the time myself, with a grim fascination. As a long-term insomniac, albeit an insomniac who has seemingly been cured by a recent bout of Covid (I can now sleep for nine hours quite easily, thank you virus) it was a kind of ‘misery loves company’ set-up for me – though being able to decide that it was, actually, okay to go to bed whenever I wanted whilst the contestants had to stay awake, well: it led to a warped sense of gratitude, or something like it. And at least no one was making me count sheep, again which literally happened on the show, whilst trying to get me to stay awake. It was an odd experience, but whatever the initial response was, things did get a lot weirder.
One of the participants, Lucy, decided quite early on that it was all too much for her and departed – although it was days in by then and so the requisite ‘chat with the psychologist’ was probably rather late in coming. The remaining contestants then began to go through various stages of confusion, mania (although the mindless giggling was oddly contagious) and finally, hallucinated reality. This was hallucination on a par with acute mental illness.
One of the lads, Chris – who, for all his pains, came second – apparently imagined he was the Prime Minister of Australia. Jimmy lost his temper with the others because they wouldn’t don armour which didn’t exist and nor would they play with an imaginary ball. Had these kinds of visions emanated from a dose of acid, there would have been far more concern over them, but as it was all self-generated, the brain’s own work, it seemed to be taken in good fun. The various talking heads Channel 4 kept on standby as consultants were never really invited to move outside of this role, and as such the ‘social experiment’ was allowed to unfold in whatever way it did.
The winner endured 178 hours of sleep deprivation; fortunately, she does not seem to have incurred any long-term effects, which is a certain kind of testament to the elasticity of a young brain in a healthy body – but it could all have gone badly wrong.
In hindsight then, it seems highly unlikely that Shattered could ever be made today. The more that concerns over mental health and wellbeing expand, the less likely that such a concerted effort to deprive people of something absolutely necessary would ever fly now. It’s also hard to imagine that you would replace the need for sleep with another non-debatable physical requirement – say, food – and make it the subject of an entertainment show, though of course getting overweight people to compete against one another, hunkering down on massive sets of scales for instance, or indeed any number of the mean, car-crash shows which have emerged since 2004 to dupe, tease, devalue or otherwise gawp at people would be disbelieved, had they not already happened.
In that respect Shattered – as an experimental development of the Big Brother model – perhaps helped to pave the way for much of the grim fodder which has appeared since. This model is now – still – deeply entrenched. Shocking, but humdrum; cruel, but dressed up as experimental or beneficial; debatably ethical, cheap and easy to make: it feels like countless shows could be described in this way in the years which have passed in the interim. Shattered was a modest success at best, but it was noteworthy, and it now represents a hell of the lot of the reality TV we still see, even if its own subject matter would not now pass muster. In effect, it’s not reality, it’s a circus, but it’s a circus that loudly proclaims its hard work for the common interest. It seems likely that there will be many more of these ‘social experiments’ yet to come, and they’ll make the same claims about their experimental value, too. It was bunkum then and it’s bunkum now.
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