Kyle-Time: You Can’t Touch This
by: Gareth Palmer / University of Salford
Britain’s Jeremy Kyle extended his brand last week with Kyle’s Academy, in which five people are given two weeks in a luxury home while being submitted to therapy in order to stabalise their personalities. In the following I will consider the Kyle-brand as an expression of the increasingly desperate tactics of television producers and as the rise of a therapeutic discourse which completely obscures the economic. My aim is to illustrate how this combination of factors exploits and helps fashion emotionally vulnerable subjects amongst the working class.
The Jeremy Kyle show airs on what industry insiders now call “troubled” ITV. The station has four channels, but its main business is ITV1 – a channel that is in gradual year-on-year decline. One solution to this ratings crisis is to invest heavily in those brands that have already proven a success. Thus for the truly, madly, deeply committed viewer, Kyle can be seen on ITV1 for an hour at 9:25 am, then in Kyle’s Academy at 2 pm for another hour. His show appears on “sister” channel ITV2 for an hour at 1 pm and then again at 3 pm. I am reminded of Coke’s apocryphal pledge not to rest until every coffee break was renamed a coke break. Perhaps they call daytime “Kyle-time” in ITV towers.
British readers will already know Kyle as one of the most hated men on television. As even one of his colleagues has noted Kyle, manages to unite the left-leaning liberal Guardian with the right-wing Daily Mail in collective loathing. The reasons for this dislike are not hard to find – Kyle very aggressively taunts, screams and yells at his guests and then makes a show of “caring.” Think Morton Downey Jr. without the grace or wit. Kyle is very much a showman recruited from late night radio shows where very brutal forms of common sense are offered as advice to those calling in the wee hours. Kyle has brought this brutality to his show telling his guests to “Sit up straight,” “Listen to me,” “Look at her” etc. These commands are matched by finger jabbing, shouting and a very aggressive strutting around in that space between audience and guests.
The programme works in time-honoured fashion. One aggrieved partner comes on and then five minutes later the other comes out fighting/ screaming, crying etc. While reading Laura Grindstaff’s Money Shot, I was fascinated to see the similarities between US and UK talk shows – in particular the tactics used to “wind-up” participants. My own ex-students have watched Kyle’s “research assistants” deliberately aggravate participants with new revelations about their partners’ conduct so the most outrageous performance is guaranteed by the time they are released into the stage. This of course is all done in the name of therapy.
Those who make up the vast majority of Kyle’s show are from the working class – that sector of our culture who have endured the greatest pressures during the rise of neo-liberalism. It is this sector that has borne the highest degrees of unemployment, who have fewer educational opportunities and who are quickly becoming social pariahs. That inelegant phrase —“the underclass” — is increasingly used as a catch-all to describe this group of long-term unemployed/single-mothers/benefit dependent/very low income workers, and it is here where Kyle’s people find their richest pickings. Television represents a last desperate resource for this group. We know this because guests are explicit about what the show represents. Denied access to professional one-to-one care and “on pills” for a variety of complaints, they are unlikely to know of other opportunities for help. So Kyle’s show is specifically named as the ideal venue where family difficulties can be aired and settled.
It is important for Kyle (and perhaps his guiltier viewers) to buy into this premise. How else to endure the sight of people swearing, grappling and crying in television? Perhaps to qualify the violence of his own performance Kyle offers guests some quality time with his “after-care” team as the show ends. This may be the last chance that such guests get to talk to professionals before returning to a world which is made to seem freakish and bizarre to us because it seems to be one of their own making rather than the product of any sort of social and economic factors. Talk shows have become the wrong vehicles for this sort of social or political analysis. And so Kyle’s show offers us bemusement at the behaviour of people at the edges of our society. Their difference is a defect of character – nothing more.
Who are Kyle’s programmes aimed at? The talk show itself is sponsored by Learn Direct Advice Line, a commercially run operation that “helps” people to change careers and is sold on the promise of self-improvement, the same premise that underpins Kyle’s show. Many of the other advertisements around all four Kyle-shows are for loan companies offering to get viewers out of debt with a magical loan at only 18% APR. Others offer to buy your house at a reduced rate so you can stay there and pay rent for a property you previously owned (this has a particular resonance in Britain’s home-owning democracy where most daytime hours are given over to house and home-related programming)
Thus while the commercial breaks are cheery but firm reminders of the economic factors that still determine everyday life, Kyle’s show focuses on behaviour, something fundamental and beyond the mere economic.
Kyle’s Academy represents an extension of the brand – a bumper extended version of the previously hidden after-care offered by the “mother” show. Here we see five people who have “only two weeks” in which to be freed of phobias, anxieties etc. The participants are put up in a luxuriously appointed large detached house with food and board provided. Thus they are separated not only from the drag of the work-a-day world but also from their families so that their personalities might be more accurately dissected. Each day a fitness guru, a life coach/hypno-therapist and a psychoanalyst lavish care and attention on the guests. Viewers will already be familiar with these trappings of the psy from other lifestyle media. This partly resembles Big Brother but mostly it apes institutions like The Priory where celebrities go to de-tox etc. This, I think, is significant. In a modern, speeded-up culture, real luxury means the time and space to work on the self with the help of the latest expertise. It’s a modern version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Extracted from the trials and tribulations of the home these lucky individuals are to be re-built in the greatest validating space there is – television.
Mental health professionals are only the most qualified of the many who can testify to the depth of the psychological problems facing the UK. For most people suffering from what the medical profession call mental difficulties, pills will be the most quickly and easily adopted solution. In the UK alone it is estimated that 12 million (20% of the nation) are on such treatments. Very few people can afford the sort of therapy offered by Kyle’s Academy. Thus the guests are elevated into the bosom of expertise and will perhaps feel obliged to heal in the two weeks provided.
It’s here that the economic, social and psychological most clearly knit together. Television’s need to maximize emotional performances and responses means that producers invest in those most likely to offer confessional behaviour for public consumption. Those who most need the validations television offers (and the therapy it gestures at) are most likely to come from the working class. Thus inserted into a framework where they are asked to consider their behaviour from a moral and ethical standpoint completely divorced from the economic, they can end up pathologizing themselves as defective. But without the resources to challenge or even escape from such a judgement they remain in limbo – a sort of psychological green room where their difference remains an unending resource for producers to exploit. Is this caring? As Kyle himself might say, “Do me a favour mate.”
2. Kyle at work
Please feel free to comment.
One of the more interesting formal components of Kyle-like shows in the U.S., in my opinion, are the video shorts that often introduce viewers to the “freakish” participants’ lives (freakish, as Palmer notes, because these aggressively edited back stories support the idea that they are products “of their own making rather than the product of any sort of social and economic factors”).
Having never seen Jeremy Kyle’s show, do his producers use similar kinds of video segments? If so, do they function in the same way they so often do in similar U.S. programs? Or, do they function as the troubled “before” bookend to the remedied “after” segment provided by Kyle’s Academy?
It’s curious to see a figure like Kyle expanding his influence in the UK while American analogues like Jerry Springer and Maury Povich have had their moment in the sun in the late 90s. This isn’t to say they’re not relevant anymore, but they’ve definitely been relegated to the bottom of the barrel.
It seems like the kind of amateur therapy Kyle offers is more the terrain of MTV dating shows and gimmicky summer filler on the networks. Has anyone seen this show on ABC, “The Ex-Wives Club?” Don’t.