Drunk girls break a window to get into a locked house. A man lies about his grandmother's death to earn sympathy in a game. A contestant says she wants to stab another contestant in the face. A woman drives drunk as cameras keep rolling — and viewers keep watching.
Viewers tuning in to some reality TV situations may come to the conclusion that there simply isn't such a thing as moral behavior on reality TV. It may depend on how you define "morality." And some who work behind the scenes say that unscripted television shows can actually teach viewers about what's right or wrong.
“Survivor,” which just concluded its 18th season, has no rules prohibiting lying, betrayal, cruelty.
“The ethical line on ‘Survivor’ is a continuum,” said host and producer Jeff Probst. “Moral is at one end, immoral at the other. Each person decides at any given moment where they are willing to place themselves — how far down that continuum will you drift for a million dollars?”
That's the question on most competitive reality shows, and provides many of their most compelling moments.
“One of the most fascinating aspects of Survivor is watching people justify their ethics,” Probst said. "Nothing is off-limits when it comes to crossing an ethical line. It comes down to your own personal ethics and how far you can stretch that line in your own self.”
Probst wouldn't identify the most or least moral or ethical players the game has seen over its 17 seasons, saying “that's impossible to answer because it requires a judgment regarding what is moral in a game that requires each player to make that decision for themselves.” Often, it's a decision other players, viewers, and critics make.
Probst did say that Jon “Jonny Fairplay” Dalton's seventh-season lie “that his grandmother had passed away is one of the most blatant examples of questionable moral behavior. It was brilliant from a strategy (point-of-view) and horrifying on a basic human level.”
But is it truly immoral behavior? Maybe not.
10 rules of moral behavior
Bernard Gert, Dartmouth's Stone Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy, is the author of “Common Morality,” which presents a rule-based framework for understanding moral behavior, rules that he said are shared across cultures and societies.
The first five rules are “don't kill, don't cause pain, don't disable, don't cause loss of freedom, don't deprive of pleasure,” Gert said. The second five are “more social.” Those are “don't deceive, keep your promises, don't cheat, obey the law, and do your duty” as required by your job or role.
"There's an amazing amount of confusion about sexual behavior. People often think about morality as if it's related to sex. Sex is no more a moral matter than eating is,” Gert said. “It just turns out that sexual behavior really has the potential for hurting people.” Rape and “certain kinds of seduction,” he said, are clearly immoral, but only “because (they violate) one of the other rules.”
So sexual interaction between consenting adults on a cable reality series, whether it's hook-ups in a hot tub or experimentation, isn't necessarily immoral. Viewers may judge it as such, however, particularly if the actions violate religious standards. But Gert said that conflating morality and religion is a mistake.
“If it's the case that morality has to be universal, it can't be the case that morality depends upon religion, because there's no religion that's universal,” he said.
Instead, only when behavior affects others, such as when reality show contestants get into alcohol-fueled physical altercations, would it be immoral, according to Gert's framework.
Those kinds of fights are frequently a part of “The Bad Girls Club,” an Oxygen reality series. Executive producer Jonathan Murray, who co-created MTV's “The Real World” with Mary-Ellis Bunim in the early 1990s, said “Bad Girls” was developed because “some of our most fascinating characters were the bad girls on (other) shows.”
The result is a lot of drinking, fighting, and screaming that broke ratings records for Oxygen when the third season premiered recently. During the premiere, the cast was dropped off at the house, which was locked; producers supplied alcohol but no key.
“We locked them out because we knew a bad girl wouldn't let herself stay locked out,” he said. “She's not hurting anyone by (breaking in), other than the window.”
Third-season cast member Ailea said she went on the show to “learn from” the other women and “from their mistakes, so when I came home I wouldn't be so aggressive and intense.”
Likewise, Ailea said that “maybe someone, somewhere can learn from our mistakes. I know there were a lot of mistakes made on the show.” Murray said that's one of the show's goals: to educate the cast and viewers about acceptable behavior, and to show the impact it can have on others.
“It's almost like they're looking at themselves in a mirror and they're seeing the kind of behavior that can get them into trouble,” Murray said. “We thought that if they did this, not only would the viewers enjoy watching these women who live their lives so unapologetically, but also potentially these bad girls could learn something from watching each other.”
That was true for Ailea. “I constantly had in the back of my head that my mom and my brother and sister were going to watch this.”
Take the morality test: Is it OK for everyone?
To determine when it's acceptable to break the rules of morality, Gert offers a test: “Would you be willing for everyone to know that they can break the rules in the same circumstances?”
On “Survivor,” then, lying, deceiving, back-stabbing, cheating, and other forms of immoral, rule-breaking behavior are acceptable, because everyone knows there are no rules prohibiting them, just like bluffing in a poker game, Gert said. “I would think that people who agree to go on these reality shows, if they were not an idiot, ought to know that a lot of people think that things are allowed.”
"Survivor" host Probst said players who are willing to engage in that behavior “have an advantage; they don't ever feel they've compromised themselves. If you believe your word is everything, no matter what, then playing Survivor will be more difficult,” he said.
Gert said that people who break the rules without being willing to let others behave in similar ways means “you think you're special in some way” and “making special exceptions for yourself.”
Murray said he's guided by similar thinking. “If I'm walking down the street and I run into a cast member, someone who has been on one of my shows, I want to be able to go up and shake their hand and feel comfortable meeting them, knowing that we treated them well. If I had to run around the corner and avoid them, that might indicate that I wasn't treating them fairly,” he said.
The Ruthie incident: Drunk driving on ‘Real World’
He also said his producers have a responsibility to stop behavior that violates Gert's first five rules. “Our directors and producers are under a standing order, if they think someone is going to hurt themselves or hurt others, to step in, and they try to. Sometimes things happen in such a way that it can't be immediate.”
On the eighth season of “Real World,” set in Hawaii, a cast member drove drunk as cameras watched. “Certainly with Ruthie (Alcaide), when we realized when she was driving under — having had a drink, we intervened and pulled her over and got her out of the driver's seat as quickly as we could,” Murray said.
A show's audience dictates how morally judgmental its content will be. “Certainly with ‘The Real World,’ because that show is aimed at a 12- to 24-year-old audience, it's very important with that show that when people behave in an aberrant manner that you try to show the consequences of that and try and show any growth and learning from having had those consequences,” Murray said. “With ‘Bad Girls’ (which targets viewers aged 18-to-34) it's a slightly different situation.”
At the very least, then, reality shows prompt viewers to consider these questions. Probst said that contributes to the show's popularity. “I believe one of the big reasons ‘Survivor’ has been so successful is because of the question of integrity. It forces you to ask yourself, what would you do in the same situation?”