Big Brother Is Watching: Israel Introduces Code of Ethics to Reality TV

After scandal involving psychoactive medications on Israeli 'Big Brother'; the people in charge decided it was time to make order. This wasn’t easy.

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In March 2012 a scandal hit Israeli TV when past participants on the Israeli version of reality TV show “Big Brother” accused show producers of doling out psychoactive medications to cast members, without explaining to them the effects of the drug. In the ensuing days, five participants from the second season of the show publicized their allegations across Israeli media.

The lead complainant was Saar Sheinfine, who raised serious allegations of being plied with psychoactive pills by the show’s production company and talked about feeling used. Three months ago, the parties announced they had reached a legal settlement including financial compensation.

Like many others, Dr. Gil Siegal, a lawyer as well as a ear, nose and throat surgeon, remembers well these hysterical reports. They led to a new stage in his career.

"[Channel 2 concessionaire] Keshet contacted me to get a professional opinion regarding what happened,” says Siegal. “I replied that I wasn’t an investigation committee and this wasn’t something I wanted a part of, but that if they wanted to use this situation for the future, I can propose a process not to look just at ‘Big Brother,’ but also to examine ethically and medically the entire world of reality TV.”

A year ago, after the “Big Brother” scandal blew up, and following a request by Keshet CEO Avi Nir, Siegal and lawyer Yuval Karniel, who teaches law at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, began writing the world’s first code of ethics for reality TV shows.

‘Start with what is’

Siegal, a surgeon at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer and director of the Ono Academic College Center for Health Law and Bioethics, serves as “medical director” at Keshet. Work on the code of ethics lasted four months, and last August Siegal stayed on to oversee its implementation in Keshet’s TV productions. In the meantime, the Second Authority for Television and Radio published its own ethical code − but it appears that Keshet’s code is based on a much richer philosophical basis, and is more practicable.

How does one approach reality TV as an ethical field? The genre is considered by many to be fundamentally immoral.

“I don’t come from a judgmental place. I begin with what exists and go from there. ... The hardest thing to do was create a paradigm. When you create a new area in ethics you must figure out what it is similar to. We thought for example about the principles of medical ethics, which is what the Second Authority sought to do. We found that this isn’t really appropriate on both a fundamental and academic level because reality TV doesn’t involve a doctor-patient relationship. We thought about occupational medicine. The medical ethics in this paradigm aren’t treatment-based. A doctor has dual loyalties, both to the [patient] and to the employer, and this is almost a conflict of interest. We continued with this thought and looked at other conflicts of interest: a doctor in the army, for example, or a doctor working for the Prison Service. In both cases there is an obligation toward the soldier or the prisoner and on the other hand to a large system.”

That’s a frightening comparison.

“It’s an example and we decided that it also wasn’t appropriate. We thought more in the direction of human experiments, [for example,] a doctor working on developing a drug. This also wasn’t appropriate because with human trials the goal is to develop a new product and the trial participant doesn’t receive any personal benefit. In a reality TV show the participant’s goal is self-realization. Because of this, the examples of the army and prison are also inappropriate, they lack a component of motivation for self-realization, they are systems of coercion, and reality TV is an entirely opposite system. In reality TV there is the person who is goal-focused and competitive, while the doctor must protect them from themselves.

Choosing the right path

Not precisely to protect them from themselves. The medical authority must also protect the person from the production’s needs.

“You are right. ... We wanted to choose the right path, which isn’t the therapeutic track, or human experiments, or coercion like in the army, but rather a new path to which we make adjustments. In the code of ethics it is written that people are free to decide, they understand from the get-go that they are entering a complex situation and that the boundaries of what is allowed and what is forbidden are clear to them. The code greatly details the processes and the role of the participants with the core being medical autonomy tempered by the extreme need to separate and prevent a mixing between the production and medical practices that present themselves to the contestants.”

Based upon the code that was formulated, all the medical topics that are raised by reality and docu-reality TV shows will be considered by a medical director while still in the development stages. Reporting regulations will be formulated for every format and show and will include treatment for contestants after their conclusion. Participation in reality TV shows will require the contestants’ consent, and they will receive timely, comprehensive information regarding the type of tasks they will have to do, the nature of the show and its ramifications for their lives during and after their show. The participants cannot seriously or irreversibly endanger their well-being even if they want to and the production must reasonably take care of their well-being. However, the actual translation of these principles into action is the interesting part, and according to Siegal it went into effect starting last August.

“We don’t have to bang their heads against the wall, so we have attached to the ethical code an appendix regarding implementation,” he says. “It deals with implementation from the pilot concept stage and whether it meets the requirements [of the code] for selecting contestants, the set, the show tasks, keeping tabs on the participants, kicking off contestants and what happens at the end of the production. At every stage, the production is required to show how it is taking care of the contestants.”

Children are special

Let’s speak practically about an existing show, “Beit Sefer Lemuzika” ‏(“Music School”‏), for example, whose participants are very young children.

"When there are children on the set the regular precautions aren’t enough,” says Siegal. “We must include an organization with expertise in child safety and a medical authority dedicated [to the children]. We asked for example, what are the hours, how will the children be checked up on, how will the psychological evaluations be carried out, because every reality show requires a psychological evaluation. Actually, here we thought it should also be a family [evaluation], and not just of the child. It must be verified that enough time has been set aside for this, to observe family dynamics.”

Will the children be provided with a psychologist after the end of the program?

“Of course,” Siegal says. “In every reality production, the concept of the show is broken down stage by stage starting from how they select the contestants, who appears at the auditions and who passes them, and also from a medical perspective. Today there isn’t a Keshet production that hasn’t gone through this process with us, back and forth until everything is covered, from the contestant level and for the production, the set, the show tasks and the conclusion of production.”

What you are describing is a happy situation. Where there any confrontations?

“There was a tendency with the productions to embrace contestants tightly. They kept in contact, they were encouraged and comforted. I forbade this. It’s a mistake. Reality TV is fundamentally a TV show. It has a beginning and an end and this you need to create through conduct and expectations. The production isn’t a health maintenance organization. The moment you enable this to go on without end you create endless dependence and psychologically and medically this isn’t right. There, on this point, there was friction with the professional [TV] team.”

And it was solved by changing the team’s conduct?

“In my eyes, television must define clear boundaries. It’s not family. It requires managing contestants’ expectations from the start. You came to have fun, for an adventure, for the experience. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. Reality TV must have a reality check. The ethical code dedicates a lot of space to informed consent. What do you as a contestant need to know about what you are getting into and how you will leave it? This reality check is crucial for the person sitting in front of you who has just one image in their head − that they will leave with a check for one million shekels and have a new career ahead of them. Your job is to present to them what is really likely to happen, what happens with the tasks, what happens with the house dynamics, what happens to them when they are kicked off and that the chance that their image will become real is small.”

Sheinfine 'at home' on 'Big Brother'. Photo: printscreen
Contestant Sa'ar Sheinfine testifying in the Knesset about abuse of psychoactive drugs on 'Big Brother'Credit: Michal Fattal

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