ITV is not known for its science programming these days, though it does have one show that features polygraphy, DNA genetic testing and psychotherapy.
The Jeremy Kyle Show is popular television’s idea of a laboratory experiment for the examination of the underclass, a social sector otherwise given scant attention by the British media.
On air for nearly eight years, it has clocked up more than 1,600 episodes and is required viewing for a huge daytime audience of 1.5 million that ranges from voyeuristic undergraduates to the long-term unemployed, taking a rare opportunity to watch a show that supposedly features people like them.
The show has made a star out of its famously unsympathetic host, who reportedly earns more than £1m a year, and has given a national platform to thousands of guests who have been booked solely to discuss their misfortunes.
Among them was Mick Philpott, the unemployed father of 17, who has been convicted of the manslaughter of six of his own children. Philpott appeared on The Jeremy Kyle Show in 2007 and was asked by the presenter how many more children he intended to have: “Do you understand how some people recoil in horror?”
Philpott, previously convicted of attempted murder, was far from the first guest to appear on the show with a record of violence and mental health problems.
He enjoyed the television exposure, later appearing on another ITV show Ann Widdecombe versus the Benefits Culture, when he allowed the former Tory minister into his Derby council home. In another documentary on ITV shown this week after Philpott’s conviction, Widdecombe described how much Philpott had loved being in front of the camera.
One senior broadcasting figure who has worked on similar television formats for many years said Philpott should never have been allowed on Kyle’s show. “He had lots of really dodgy form and that would have been a massive alarm bell to any editor I have worked with and they would have said ‘We can’t have this guy on’,” he said. “You are asking for trouble for the programme because by definition he’s not a reformed character.”
Professor David Wilson, of Birmingham City University, who worked as a psychological adviser to the Big Brother reality show, said the appearance on The Jeremy Kyle Show had only increased Philpott’s instability. “It was almost as if it endorsed his behaviour. It’s ironic because Kyle is all about changing behaviour but I think it reinforced it. The show made him into a celebrity – it magnified his behaviour rather than challenging it. It’s a confrontational programme and Mick Philpott didn’t feel browbeaten he felt empowered.”
ITV said yesterday that its show was based around “conflict resolution”. A spokesman said: “Alongside the straight-talking host and production team are a team of guest support and aftercare professionals working on the show. The Jeremy Kyle Show prides itself on an excellent aftercare/guest support service and has helped many guests turn their lives around.”
The Jeremy Kyle Show has long faced accusations about the way it treats its guests. Former producer Charlotte Scott went public in 2007 to claim that guests were deliberately set at each other’s throats by the programme’s staff. “Guests are wound up like a coiled spring before the show. It is an integral part of preparations – a process, sanctioned by the show’s editors, called ‘talking up’,” she said. Contributors were instructed to “shout five main points,” she said, and told to stand over the person they were accusing while pointing a finger.
The show’s guests are brought on stage from different entrances, like gladiatorial contestants. The effect, since described by journalists who have posed as members of the audience, is comparable to the atmosphere among the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe or, at worse, at a medieval witch’s trial.
But the show is a money-spinner for Kyle, for broadcaster ITV, for programme maker ITV Studios, for the show’s official polygrapher Guy Heseltine (trained at the Backster School of Lie Detection in San Diego), for Graham Stanier, the show’s “director of aftercare”, and for companies such as Alpha Biolabs, the Warrington-based company that does the show’s “all-important DNA test results”, as the presenter often describes them.
The Jeremy Kyle Show began in 2005, inspired by the success of the American presenter Jerry Springer who told the Radio Times the same year that “your [television] talk shows are like ours were 10 years ago. They plod along – it could be radio.”
Kyle, 47, a former travelling salesman who carved out a career in local radio, has produced a programme that is arguably even more combustible than Springer’s. Rather than arbitrate disputes he likes to take sides.
In 2007, when David Staniforth was fined £300 for headbutting a fellow guest on the show, Manchester judge Alan Berg delivered a withering review of the show’s appeal. “It is for no more and no less than titillating members of the public who have nothing better to do with their mornings than sit and watch this show which is a human form of bear-baiting which goes under the guise of entertainment.”
For a moment it seemed Kyle might make it Stateside. But after two series, the New York-produced version of the show was canned in February because of low ratings. The Americans, it seems, did not have the stomach for Kyle’s unique version of a television format they pioneered themselves.