Reality TV contestants: exploited dupes or self-aware fame seekers?

Economists have a strange way of thinking about the world. Take Nicholas Gruen’s remarks on Tim Brunero’s long and interesting article in New Matilda about the conetestants for Channel Nine’s Ladette to Lady.

Brunero’s article takes a long and hard look at the disingenuous practices of reality television producers towards the “stars” of their often highly humiliating shows. While some contestants literally win millions, most are paid very little for their time, talent and work. Gruen thinks this is fine, as the contestants are merely trading off moeny for fame.

In the case of Ladette to Lady, for instance, the producers seem to have embraced the young women on the show with something less than what most observers would call a “duty of care”:

One girl, Bianca Stevens, says producers arrived to film the package with eight litres of “goon” (cask wine) to drink, before stuffing $50 bills in her pockets when she and some friends were later taken to a pub. “I’ve never been that drunk ever, I couldn’t remember it, I almost got fired because I didn’t go to work the next day,” the 23-year-old says.

Likewise another contestant, Zoe Irons, drank so much of a bottle of vodka given to her by producers that she was able to be filmed vomiting into a bucket.

[…] Irons was literally rendered homeless by the show — due to the show’s policy of not paying participants’ living costs during their stint on the program, the 20-year-old was unable to afford her rent and so had to move back to her parents’ house.

The same thing happened to Gohrt, from Perth. “I was living in Subiaco with a friend but had to move back home because I wouldn’t be earning any money off the show so I couldn’t’ afford to pay rent while I was away,” she said. Likewise, Bianca Stevens also had to move out of her share house in Port Kembla back to her mother’s home so she could participate.

But over at Club Troppo, Nicholas Gruen thinks this is merely a “union complaint.”

Less money – more fame (which can often in its turn lead to more money – though that’s largely beside the point).  It’s a tradeoff people have made since Roy Emerson stayed amateur to win Grand Slams while Rod Laver was safely on the pro tour and indeed it’s the tradeoff that so many creative people make. As a matter of fact I’m making it now. 

It’s difficult to know where to begin with this comment, there’s so much to disagree with. Certainly, no-one forced the contestants on Ladette to Lady to sign their contracts. And we all make mental decisions on the pros and cons of taking a new job or embarking on something as potentially life-changing as a season on reality TV.

But this doesn’t make Brunero’s a “union complaint.” The point of the article is not that the contestants aren’t represented by unions or organising their labour (although its a fair bit if  they could, they would demand better pay and working conditions) –  it’s that their treatment has been expolitative and degrading. And Brunero interviews several contestants who point out that they didn’t, in fact, understand what they were getting themselves into. They suffered from an “information asymmetry”; in other words they were conned. 

And Gruen’s argument that the contestants  are making a “trade-off” of money for potential fame – accompanied with bizarre comparisons to 1970’s tennis stars – is initially tempting, but wrong.  Victims of shonky confidence tricksters “trade off” their money for the illusory utility of getting a bargain all the time. That doesn’t make conmen ethical. It doesn’t make a shonky deal fair. 

You could extend this argument further. The contestants on reality TV shows are  undoutedly adding value for the producers of their show. They are, without a doubt, rendering their labour. I believe they should be classed as workers, and enjoy at the very least a safe workplace and a living wage. But I’m old-fashioned like that. I don’t believe in the ability of often quite inexperienced young people to strike canny bargains with reality television producers offering them a chance, however slight, of stardom.    

I am normally quite a fan of Nicholas Gruen, but I think this post  illustrates the skewed moral compass economics can soemtimes engender. 


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