Why is TV rewarding bad behaviour?

In 2018 TV’s biggest juggernauts are rewarded for their cold hearts and hand grenades.

And both press and audiences are facilitating the bad behaviour, meaning there will surely be more to come…

On Married at First Sight we copped cheating, abuse, sexting, and chauvinism. My Kitchen Rules has seen insults flying across the dinner table. Even I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here cast David Oldfield this year, where his views on Indigenous history were given a primetime platform.

Sure, Reality TV loves a villain, and Conflict is the basis of all Drama. But TV is in a race to the bottom right now and cookie-cutter storytelling is the medium’s mortal enemy.

Some years ago when Simon Cowell epitomised the ‘nasty judge’ American Idol used to revel in car-crash auditions. It was an era in which everybody jumped on the bandwagon (Dicko became his local equivalent). But in this cyclic medium, eventually MasterChef came along with ‘kinder, gentler’ stories and the tide turned. The conflict was internalised -could Julie create a winning dish and inch closer to her cooking dream?

Lately TV’s pendulum has swung back the other way.

Married At First Sight has been a phenomenon for Nine. Not just in its hit ratings, but in creating water cooler chatter. I’ve sat in cafes where seniors are debating cheating couples like an episode of Days of Our Lives. I’ve heard 20-somethings tell me they are hooked. You only have to look at an episode of Gogglebox to see the jaws on the floor, the yelling at the screens, to know what a zeitgeist hit this has been. My congratulations to Endemol Shine and Nine for achieving such when Free to Air is too often a law of diminishing returns.

Since the show stripped across multiple nights last year, it has strayed further from its original premise: can Science find love? Who cares when Dean is cheating on Tracey, or Davina is bitching behind her back? Season One actually resulted in Alex and Zoe, who have since had a baby. I’d lay money nobody from Married at Real Housewives will come close.

And what to make of the show’s three consultants: 2 psychologists and 1 neuroscientist? Aren’t they now facilitating the show’s soap opera? Could they be tainting psychology by colluding with such manipulation? The Australian Psychologists Society refuses to discuss such questions while it is redrafting their media guidelines (which it has been doing for some 12 months). Let’s just go with a recent News Corp article which revealed the 3 are essentially talent – participants can access a separate psychologist during production, who is thankfully independent.

For that matter, what kind of civil celebrant “fake marries” someone anyway? No, they are not actors. In a country that just underwent a national debate about the values and sanctity of marriage, these may be people who missed the memo.

Another sign of rewarding bad behaviour was in the media coverage: column inches, recaps, paparazzi (some of them alerted by the cast themselves) and click bait headlines fed oxygen to the show, which in turn led to bumper ratings. A cycle of soapy villains, network promos, gossip and ratings created a monster and monster hit, and everyone has a vested interest.

Yet TV is also a democracy. The audience votes with their remotes. It’s a shame that in the Reality show tug-of-war the victims have been local Drama (notably Safe Harbour and Riot, but a fuller explanation requires more depth).

So if TV, press and audiences are rewarding bad behaviour who am I to argue? Having mass eyeballs watching Free to Air is good news and it keeps people employed.

Maybe I’ve focussed too much on the grubbier aspects of the shows. Maybe I want them to go back to their original premise: finding love, cooking spectacular food. Maybe I just feel like I’ve seen it all before.

Or I’m worried I will be seeing it again. Be careful what you wish for.


  1. Paradoxically, the more outrageous the show is it would seem that more people (in most cases) will watch which obviously means higher ratings. Simple equation.

  2. What a great article David, I agree with your sentiment completely. I made the decision some years ago to not allow this type of TV to permeate my life. There is enough meanness and bullying in the world without glorifying it. Interestingly these same networks bang on about bullying and how they are making a stand against it etc.. To me at least it’s obvious which side of the argument they are on. Dollars will trump ethics every time.

  3. Maev....Sydney

    Good piece…I have a reasonable vocabulary…but ‘zeitgeist’ had me referring to Dr Google…And I am thinking…most people live fairly ordinary lives…these shows allow them to entertain their fantasies …without any repercussions…as Sammee said..like Dynasty and Bold and Beautiful…maybe?

  4. It’s so ironic that a show about marriage based on ‘science’ has ultimately seen none of the ‘married’ couples last but there are now about four cross-over relationships.
    This season seemed more about throwing 22 people together with an endless supply of alcohol and undermine the meaning of marriage.

  5. Ignoring the last week’s events, I’ve been enamoured with Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. Why didn’t the Aussie one happen in the end?

  6. It’s why I’ve been so vocal about my once brief love, now utter contempt for MKR since they shamelessly shifted their focus and my celebration of everything that is good about Masterchef in comparison. Sure, we can be snarky at the networks for pumping out this indefensible dross but I’m disappointed in each of my colleagues or friends who feed it with the nonsensical (and untrue) argument “You’ve got to watch, haven’t you.” No. I don’t.

  7. I cannot for the life of me understand why these shows are so popular. It is getting harder to find something on TV to watch that has doesn’t have to resort to promoting inappropriate behaviour (and then making it acceptable or normal) to get an audience.

  8. It’s hypocritical when a TV breakfast show promotes an “anti-bullying” campaign, then later on in the day you see a show promo for their reality show which promotes full-on bullying that will ‘shock Australia’.

  9. Great article David, nail on the head for me. It’s sad we’re going backwards to nasty reality TV as this will tigger more negative trash but as you say, it’s what the people want…

  10. The science was always pretend and they never had much success, 1/4 in the first series and that was where they cast a Tradie with a educated profession to produce conflict, but they fell in love and made it work. Celebrants are just people who are paid to host ceremonies, registered ones can do marriages, but they also do commitment ceremonies, vow renewal ceremonies and these days divorce ceremonies. But you won’t find a Catholic Priest participating in MAFS, because they do have moral standards and believe that marriage is a religious matter. MAFS is just a matchmaking show, they didn’t invent cheating or sexting (neither of which the state objects to or sanctions between consenting adults). Does that make it better or worse than Dating Naked or The Bachelor In Paradise where they confine single people together with loads of alcohol and condoms and broadcast what happens (with…

    • “you won’t find a Catholic Priest participating in MAFS, because they do have moral standards”
      -I suggest the next thing you watch is the Academy Award winning film ‘Spotlight’.

          • Virtue signalling with your longer comment, then you go on elsewhere and add this snide negative comment. I’m not Catholic so not personally offended but I do hate hypocrisy.

        • My comment was pointing towards a film about the heinous true crimes by catholic priests. The film shines a light on the ‘moral standards’ and the abuse by catholic priests as well as the cover ups by the church. Not a negative comment, just the truth, which the original comment was most definitely not.

  11. I would spin it around the other way – why do we reward bad behaviour by the producers of Riot or Safe harbour by producing predicatble self-indulgent, earnest and very badly written and acted local product at taxpayers expense, and then be tremendously surprised when it doesn’t rate well? Poor products deserve to fail, even if I agree with you that MAFS is exploitative and probably short-lived (UnReal has ruined all ‘Reality’ TV for me.

    There is a lot of great stuff being made for TV now – not a lot of it is on free to air television, and thats their problem and probably their funeral, but the bigger issue is how we can access and consume the greater choice of material thats available to us, the audience and reward the producers of material that we do enjoy.

  12. It would not surprise me in the slightest if it was revealed that the MAFS cast were all paid actors. Gives people something to talk about.

  13. Gee, the condescension in these comments is amazing. All this virtue signalling. Don’t any of you have guilty pleasures on TV while keeping your IQs intact? The majority of people watching these shows are not “morons” but viewing the show as pure comedy while wondering what type of people would behave like this on camera.

    Per Safe Harbour and Riot, audiences want entertainment foremost. These just reeked of being worthy and, yes, I watched both. Have given up on Safe Harbour as the concept doesn’t stretch to four episodes, just maybe a 5 minute discussion on The Drum.

  14. Have to admit that never watch MAFS. I reckon the reasons behind its success is that lot of viewers resonates with those in the show…all the drama in relationship themselves or their friends and families. However, by wasting time watching others’ drama and feel sorry about their owns at the same time, they will never be recovered but still living in their drama world. So sad….it is never to late to see the light. But its their choice of life. #goodluck

  15. My father, now deceased some 30 years, always said Australia is full of D***heads and W*nkers. As a young fella I used to think he was being harsh of his fellow country-men. The older I get I’m not so sure?

  16. MKR insults are a set up by whoever produces the show,then we have to suffer all week with promos of slinging insults at each other only to hear………. your’e excuse lol

  17. Where does MAFS go to from here? True love and lasting relationships are not the aim. More of the same titillation and voyeurism won’t work either. White powder on the coffee table and three-in-a-bed beckons. SBS World Movies with an Aussie accent. Whatever happened to Big Brother Up Late?

  18. I feel, listening to comments at the hairdressers, coffee shops etc., that I am one of the very few that agree with you David. People seem to love the drama, the hysterics, the backstabbing – I suppose that’s why the programmers steer the contestants towards this behaviour in every new ‘reality’ show on our TVs. I for one just switch off. After having spend $$$ to have a new TV antenna installed recently, I now realise I hardly watch TV anymore. Total waste of good money.

  19. I honestly feel like MAFS is bad for Australia. I watched it to try and figure out the fascination with it. What I saw was a huge amount of manipulation, a lot of trashy behaviour and a cast who are ultimately being exploited.

  20. I think the paragraph about TV being a democracy hit the nail on the head. If people were watching touchy, feely reality shows, screens would be full of them.
    As for MKR, it was always more about the character dynamics than the cooking. I’m sure by now we have all heard the stories about potential contestants for that show not actually being asked to cook anything until about their fourth call back audition.

  21. MAFS is successful for the same reason we used to watch Dynasty for the bitchiness and backstabbing and for all the relationship drama of The Bold and the Beautiful. Classic soap opera.

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