Saturday 20 January 2018

Taking a walk on TV's wild side

Is television an appropriate medium for airing families' problems?

Back to basics: The Cannon family one of the families featuring in the TV series 'Families in The Wild'.
Back to basics: The Cannon family one of the families featuring in the TV series 'Families in The Wild'.
David Coleman

David Coleman

A couple of years ago Shane Dunphy wrote a feature article in this paper that was critical of the kind of 'reality' television programmes that I have made.

The core premise of the piece was that: "These are personal, raw experiences (for participants), and airing them for an audience seems cheap and unfair."

In many ways Shane was right to raise the issue of the potential vulnerability of participants. He was right to identify the possibility that they may be taken advantage of for the sake of entertainment and television ratings.

He was also right to question the morality of televising the intimacy of people's lives who were already stressed.

He was right to question these things because I too question them and consider them every time I make a new television series. But, having pondered these issues myself, why do I feel that it is still valuable to offer therapy to children, teenagers and their families under such very public scrutiny? Let me provide some context.

There has been significant change in society over the last number of years. The comparative wealth of the Celtic tiger era brought about a shift from a community focus to a focus on the individual. This has meant that many families now feel more isolated than ever before.

Without strong communities built on strong common values many parents may feel like they are a lone moral voice for their children and their teenagers.

They have fewer social supports to lean on when they want advice, guidance or even some sympathy for the situations they are trying to deal with in relation to their children.

Parents rely more heavily now on books, newspaper advice columns and television programmes. They want to compare and contrast their own parenting approaches with 'expert' approaches to see what will work best in their relationships with their children.

Many parents have a very low opinion of their own ability to rear their children. Many are unsure if they are doing the right thing. They are afraid to take a stand and to rely upon their instincts. This is a topic that I have addressed before -- the crisis of confidence affecting parents today.

We all have a moral and value-based standard of what is right and wrong. We use our moral compasses to try to guide and direct our children in the hope that they too will grow to be reasonably upright citizens. However, in the face of the onslaught of multiple values and influences that pour through the various media channels we can often question our own moral standpoint.


Similarly, we can question if we are doing right by our children when we impose value-based decisions on what they are and are not allowed to do. For example, if you don't let your 10-year-old unfettered access to the internet, will she be at a disadvantage compared to her peers?

That breakdown in community support for parents also means that we can feel like a lone voice in questioning and challenging some of the more negative influences that we can see coming to bear on our children.

I make television programmes but I make them with educational intent as well as entertainment value. In the void created by the breakdown in community structures I am happy to give voice to my opinions about how children should be raised.

If parents and others who watch feel some level of connection to those values, ideals and approaches that I put forward then I imagine that it must be supportive for them to hear someone else advocating what they too believe.

If, by watching other real families struggling with common family dilemmas and troubles, viewers can also feel reassured that the struggles in their own lives are normal and can be resolved, then that too is a good thing.

So I believe that there is a common good served by real families with real difficulties honestly exploring why things are difficult and coming to some resolution about how things can be easier.

However, I am conscious that it is not just the common good that must be served. I must also do what is best and right for the families themselves.

I'd like to think it is clear from the quality of the interventions and the television programmes themselves that I care about what happens to the children, teenagers and parents who have volunteered to take part on-screen.

What I am trying to do, always, is to ensure that meeting the therapeutic needs of a child, teenager or family is of paramount importance.

For this reason I have made many interventions with families off-screen as well as on.

There are many issues within participating families that I, and the production teams I have worked with, have not allowed be made public. To my mind, this is just fair and right.

But I would be naïve to think that just because I strive to be ethical in how the reality of participants' lives gets portrayed that there is no potential personal cost to them for being on television.

With these kinds of shows, there is the expectation from viewers that the family will air their dirty laundry and viewers have come to expect intimate access to the inner functioning (or dysfunctioning) of the family.

Since television started placing such a strong emphasis on 'reality' programming, the level of intrusiveness into, and manipulation of, participants' lives has changed in line with viewer expectations.

The first reality TV show was probably the US 'Candid Camera' series in 1948. This show was mildly embarrassing for its 'victims', but their privacy and their dignity was largely maintained.

As societal values have changed over the years, the appetite of viewers for complete exposure and at times humiliation of participants has increased.

We seem to be happy for producers to create or manipulate environments to showcase stressed participants and their subsequent behaviour. Programmes like 'Big Brother' and 'Survivor' were typical of the genre.

Perhaps there is just a voyeuristic element in all of us that needs to be satiated. Some viewers no doubt find the 'car crash' TV experience a compelling one -- they like seeing how traumatic someone else's situation is so that they can feel relieved their own life isn't as bad.

Those who take part in programmes like 'Families in the Wild' can become the common denominator for other families, who will rate themselves higher or lower on scales of success, conflict, social class, effectiveness, togetherness, distress, happiness and a myriad of other social and psychological scales of functioning.

If this kind of comparison occurs then participants do run the risk of potential exposure to ridicule and humiliation but not necessarily. They may also earn the respect from viewers who see the risks that the family has taken and value the opportunity to learn from what they have seen.

Another difficulty that participants may face is the risk of becoming defined by a single aspect of their self or their personality. We live in a sound-bite culture where we attend to highly edited and uni-dimensional profiles of those who appear in the media.

Unless programme makers are fair and balanced in their portrayal of participants it is easy for a viewer to believe that a single personality trait defines the person rather than the complexity that is really the case.

I am aware, therefore, that families who have taken part in programmes that I have made take brave risks. I would like to thank each of them for taking those risks.


I am mindful of all of these potentially negative outcomes, especially since children and teenagers have been involved in the shows that I've made. Whatever about their parents, who are adults, and maybe the teenagers, making informed choices about taking part in a television programme, children can't make the same choices. The choices that their parents make on their behalf are, therefore, critical.

Ultimately, though, parents must make decisions that weigh up these potential costs with the potential benefits of getting help.

I can't eliminate the risks of exposure that families must take; I can only ensure that I do the best therapeutic job possible. It is my job to make sure that the therapy is good enough.

At the heart of the whole experience is going to be a client's trust in the therapist, their hope that things can improve, the competence of the therapist and the shared effort that both therapist and client put into the change process.

All of these factors can be created within a therapeutic relationship that is filmed for television. Indeed, by taking therapy out of the consulting rooms and making it visible and taking some of the mystique away from it, it makes it more accessible and normalises it for a wider group of people.

If this means that more people might reach out for the help they need then it is a good thing. Moreover, because the television-based therapeutic experience is so intense, and possibly more pressured, the conditions for therapy to work well are, I believe, enhanced.

  • David Coleman's new TV show, 'Families in the Wild', starts tonight on RTE1 at 9.35pm. In it, David takes three families feeling the stresses of family life away from home to the isolation of the Kerry wilderness for a week of activities and therapy

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