Why Are So Many Of Us Willing To Revel In The Human Misery Of The Jeremy Kyle Show?

And what psychological price do we pay for watching it?

Jeremy Kyle

by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

‘I remember watching [The Jeremy Kyle Show] once and Jeremy came out like “are you ready to watch me take the piss out of some smackheads?”’ says Gina*, 34, a care worker from Birmingham, ‘I sat there like “wow I really need to turn this off” but I just didn’t. It’s like watching a car crash, you can’t turn away even when you know you should.’

The Jeremy Kyle Show, ITV’s most popular daytime TV show with a regular audience of one million viewers was cancelled this morning following the death of a former guest who had failed a lie-detector test on the show just a week prior. Hampshire police said that the death of Steve Dymond, 63 from Portsmouth, was not being treated as suspicious.

A massive 3,320 episodes have aired since its inception in 2005, but it has consistently received negative reviews, since it’s 2005 inception, and has been branded poverty porn - Charlie Brooker once described Kyle as an ‘agent of Satan.’ So why has it taken so long - and such a horrific incident - for ITV to pull the plug?

Because, essentially, it pulled in those all-important viewing figures, with a 22% audience share of ITV's daytime schedule. The show existed for millions as their most ashamed guilty pleasure. They would sit and watch every day, enthralled as often very vulnerable people ripped their wounds open for our own amusement and battled their loved ones in the unhealthiest ways in an almost emotional gladiatorial contest, except the winner was who you felt sorry for more.

And when the guests of this show are so often those that have been failed by society, it makes the fact we feed into these high viewing figures by watching their vulnerabilities be exposed in often taunting or bullish ways feel all the more uncomfortable. Do we really, in 2019, want to watch shows where women feel compelled to take paternity tests in front of a live audience by their former partner? Where mothers and daughters will come to physical blows over petty boyfriend drama while the audience laughs and berates them? Where people are literally booed and taunted as they come on stage to describe the emotional traumas that have led to their latest self-destructive breakdown?

The Jeremy Kyle Show might just be something you had on in the background one day, or a pre-Netflix-era binge you got into when off sick from work, a phase you went through while studying when there was nothing else on, but either way the majority of us have watched, and been swept up into the drama of this TV show. But why?

‘By watching the programme, people can engage in what we call downward social comparison, says Sharon Coen, media psychology lecturer at the University of Salford, ‘that is comparing their situation to that of others who are similar to themselves but worse off . That can make people feel better about themselves.

‘Plus, there is the concept of schadenfreude – an emotional reaction we experience when we enjoy other people’s misery,’ she continued, ‘think of your opponent missing a penalty in a football match. We can often feel good seeing other people’s misfortune.’

It’s not the reason most admit to why they watch the show of course, many people we spoke to stated they were engaged by the thrill of a lie detector or DNA test result, but seemingly we are fulfilling a deep-seated insecurity about our own success if we feel joy witnessing others pain. It seems as if guilt at not meeting our own artificial goal-posts, or succeeding in our own endeavours, would allow for joy at knowing we’re at least not as worse off as others.

And according to Counselling Directory member Pam Custers, who runs a psychotherapy private practice in London, this need to fulfil that desire, which drove Jeremy Kyle to be their most popular daytime show, comes at too high a price. Not only for the people involved in the show and those viewing it, but those the create and produce shows like this too.

‘I can’t help feeling that we have slowly been drawn into a modern-day psychological cage fight,’ she said, ‘I wonder if we understood that words often cause longer lasting damage than fists, and whether we would be as happy to watch if we could see the damage that is caused. The sad loss of this participant to suicide has finally put on the handbrake. We need to ask ourselves, at what cost [will we pay] for high ratings?

*names have been changed

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