When The Jeremy Kyle Show was cancelled in May 2019, it was dubbed a “watershed moment” for British broadcasters. The death of Steve Dymond two weeks after appearing as a guest prompted a swift end to a show that, despite its many controversies, had aired on ITV to consistent commercial success since 2005.
In the wake of Dymond’s death, along with the deaths of two former Love Island contestants – Sophie Gradon in 2018, and Mike Thalassitis in 2019 – a parliamentary inquiry was called into the duty of care across reality TV. It was ultimately closed due to the 2019 general election, but seemed to mark a shift in public attitude towards the future of reality TV of this nature. “Programmes like The Jeremy Kyle Show risk putting people who might be vulnerable on to a public stage at a point in their lives when they are unable to foresee the consequences, either for themselves or their families,” Committee chair Damian Collins MP said at the time.
Turn on the TV today, though, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the events of the last few years never happened.
Since The Jeremy Kyle Show was taken off air, the gap appears to have been filled by ITV’s breakfast news programme, Good Morning Britain. Fronted chiefly by Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, it’s been described by fans to YouGov as “addictive” and “action-packed” – similar adjectives 10-year-old me would have assigned to The Jeremy Kyle Show.
Rather than ordinary people, GMB invites experts or advocates to battle each other’s views, and the chaos of Kyle’s DNA and lie detector tests are swapped for fiery debates fuelled by tabloid talking points and culture wars. Continuing The Jeremy Kyle Show’s precedent, however, minority or marginalised groups often emerge as casualties.
Like The Jeremy Kyle Show’s star, _GMB_’s pervading presence, Morgan, is a pontificating middle-aged white guy acting as “the voice of the people” or a champion of “common sense”. While Kyle would attract standing ovations just for entering the stage, Morgan’s kudos comes from those who retweet clips and declare: “fair play to the guy, he only says what everyone else is thinking”.
According to Morgan, GMB_’s audience recently peaked at 1.8 million, and its Twitter account has twice the followers of rival _BBC Breakfast. Which begs the question: Why has Jezza been shunned from public life, but GMB is embraced?
Both shows dress their discourse as democratic debate, complete with opening statements, but thereafter are governed by emotion. Morgan blusters anomalies mid-discussion like, “Are you saying I’m a racist, sexist, homophobe?” while Munroe Bergdorf explains systemic racism, for example. Kyle squared up to a guest in 2015, calling him a “horrible little thug” before a security guard intervened. His overworked bouncers haven’t quite been re-deployed to GMB, but Morgan foments similar violence – it’s just that the pileups take place on Twitter and it’s the audience at-home throwing the punches.
And little else has riled them up this year as much as “Meg-xit”. On January 13, following the announcement that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were stepping back from royal duties, GMB hosted a debate questioning whether racist media were to blame. The author, lawyer and university professor Afua Hirsch argued that they were, making her impassioned case based on lived experience, as the only guest present who was of African heritage. Hirsch was vehemently disputed by Morgan and forced to shout through his interruptions. At one point, he accused her of “seeing racism in everything”.
Talk shows often portray Black women as angry, with The Jerry Springer Show – Kyle’s American predecessor – being famous for so-called wig fights, in which weaves would be torn out mid-brawl. The Jeremy Kyle Show USA, also broadcast in Britain, would often portray Black men as deadbeat dads, with Kyle offering moralistic parenting advice. “Everything ain’t entertainment, in fact it’s exploitation,” American rapper Chuck D once tweeted in response to a segment on Maury.
Whether it’s via the the personal lives of Jeremy Kyle’s guests or Piers Morgan forcing academics like Hirsch into verbal jousting, both show a willingness to exploit the experiences and emotions of Black guests in the name of “action-packed” TV.
A similarly exploitative dynamic also underpins the shows’ treatment of working-class substance abusers. Often othered and attached to stigmatising characteristics, Jeremy Kyle once told a slurring guest that he was “insulting” viewers at home who, unlike him, “had stridden for years to get a job”. The intricacies of inequality were overlooked, and an emphasis instead placed on individual responsibility.
In an article published by Drugs: Education, Prevention, and Policy, looking at the neoliberal lens through which substance abuse is addressed on The Jeremy Kyle Show, researchers concluded that “structural causes of substance use and inequality were silenced, and an emphasis on individual responsibility prioritised” on the show. Time and time again we heard Kyle tell people: “Nobody forces you to put drugs and alcohol into your system.”
The same approach is taken on GMB around issues such as obesity and trans rights. In July 2019, plus-size model Angelina Duplisea appeared on the show to debate whether her casting in a Miley Cyrus music video glorified unhealthy lifestyles. Alongside reality-star Chloe Goodman (whose expertise on plus-size modelling remains unknown), Morgan argued that the video may encourage fans to emulate Duplisea’s weight. “But, are you really happy?” Morgan asks the model. Where Kyle reduced addiction to idleness, Morgan ties fatness to misery. Meanwhile, Goodman lobbied for ostracism: “I can’t accept someone who is really unhealthy.”
Back in March, Morgan grappled with transgender athletes’ right to participate in competition on GMB. In one debate, he quotes long-jumper Chris Tomlinson who claimed that transgender athletes could “wreck women’s sport”. Rife with misinformation and scaremongering, GMB simply takes a controversial Jeremy Kyle story like “My son’s dad is now living as a woman” – in which Kyle implied that the gender identity of his guest was a possible psychological risk to her child – and repackages it as objective news.
These narratives could be a product of commercial choices as much as cis-normative ideology. According to Joshua Gamson’s book Freaks Talk Back, talk-shows would “actively produce a situation, in which they attracted viewers by simultaneously threatening and reassuring them.” In Netflix’s recent documentary Disclosure, actress Laverne Cox also highlights how the media is the primary source of interaction most of the public have with the trans community. Recorded transgender hate crimes rose by 81 percent in the UK between 2018 and 2019, with vilification in the media often linked to the increased hostility.
GMB fans buy the idea that Morgan is just taking the nation’s temperature and saying what needs to be said, but little acuteness is required to see that there might be other motivations. Prior to Morgan joining the show in 2015, GMB_’s viewing figures were so low that it was reportedly at risk of being replaced by cartoons. Morgan now boasts about its audience share catching up with _BBC Breakfast, but, as Gamson writes, “producers cannot afford to allow audiences to think that the joke is on them”.
The success of GMB reflects a shift – or perhaps a lack of change – in what audiences want to wake up to. Even mild-mannered BBC Breakfast has begun leaning towards the kind of exploitative voyeurism that’s quick to be condemned when it appears on reality TV. In August, they were widely criticised for broadcasting live footage of a boat carrying asylum seekers across the English Channel.
Whilst many of reality TV’s recent break-outs – Queer Eye, The Masked Singer, First Dates – have ditched the genre’s schadenfreude for a more benevolent approach, the format’s ugliest tropes have found a new home in daily news programmes. Under the guise of news, it seems anything goes with cereal.