In the 1st century AD, the biggest show in town was the Colosseum in Rome, where spectators could watch competitors tear each other to shreds. Entertainment is pretty much the same today, although it now screens Sunday to Wednesday nights on Nine and is called Married at First Sight.
The program seemingly involves complete strangers marrying (except they don’t as it’s against the law). These people are thrown together to live, eat, sleep, have sex, cheat, and pour red wine over each other during explosive dinner parties.
MAFS, as it is known, is Nine’s most prominent and popular show thanks to its skilled production and addictive nature. It permeates Nine’s entire ecosystem, providing a halo for other shows such as Doctor Doctor, while spawning the Talking Married show on catch up services 9Now, news reports on nine.com.au, updates of women’s site 9Honey and, of course, media commentary in this very newspaper (owned by Nine).
Married At First Sight’s Poppy and LukeCredit:
Beyond Nine, there are endless news stories, recaps and reviews across a wide range of websites, dissecting what is billed as “Australia’s biggest social experiment”. Except of course it isn’t. When Big Brother UK tried the "social experiment" line, scientists pointed out that no ethics committee would ever approve an experiment that was so cruel.
The question is how damaging is it, not just for participants, but for Nine and the network’s brand as it continues to shift away from free-to-air advertising revenue. Despite confidentiality agreements, more and more participants are speaking out in a way that is damaging to Nine and production company Endemol Shine Australia, alleging manipulation and, in some cases, dissatisfaction with their treatment by producers.
You have all heard the tale of Dr Frankenstein, now meet the modern-day TV equivalent, the Frankenproducer. This is an industry term slowly gaining traction for just how manipulated reality-TV scenarios have become. Heck, even Q&A on the ABC will seat leftist activist Van Badham next to a conservative and watch sparks fly. MAFS is probably the exemplar. Casting is the most obvious manipulation. But reaction shots can come from entirely different incidents. One contest woke up the next morning after an explosive party wearing different coloured nail polish. And alcohol has long been a reality-TV producer’s best friend. Things got murkier in a recent newspaper report that detailed one contestant leaving the show because she felt “uncomfortable” sharing a bed with her on-screen husband.
It is quite possible an interventionist regulator might also look at standards in reality-TV programs.
It seems clear reality TV is going to have to get a lot less nasty. All networks are on notice after the New South Wales Compensation Commission last year ordered Channel 7 to pay compensation to a House Rules contestant after she was harassed and bullied on the show.
Nine is very firm that it looks after the welfare of all MAFS participants but it is concerned. The network's communications team sent out a letter to local journalists urging caution after the suicide of Love Island UK presenter Caroline Flack, who was pursued by the tabloids after she was charged with assaulting her boyfriend. The note says producers Endemol Shine Australia and Nine have “individual producers trained in mental health first aid” and other means of support, but also took aim at the media. “We would like to remind you as well that the words you write or speak about these people have an impact too and at times that ripple effect causes people hurt and distress. We encourage you to consider the wellbeing of all these individuals as you choose to cover the show.”
The letter expressed the wish Nine and journalists could continue to work together “on this program that the audience has shown they love”.
There is no question that MAFS has helped Nine to be in the strongest position of all the free-to-air networks. Revenue fell by 1.7 per cent for the half year to December to $1.19 billion, while group earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) was flat at $250.8 million. Beyond a touching optimism that advertising will get better, Nine’s chief executive Hugh Marks sweetened its results last month with a $100 million cost-cutting program — more than 20 per cent of its earnings base. The move to a glittering new media tower at 1 Denison Street in North Sydney will save money while updating facilities at the same time.
Nine's shareholding in online real estate portal Domain is critical to the business and often overlooked. Domain remains No.2 to News Corp’s realestate.com.au but Nine’s footprint is helping Domain expand into markets such as south-east Queensland. The word is Marks, who has joined the Domain board, is pushing chief executive Jason Pellegrino hard. Meanwhile, revenue at streaming service Stan grew by 79 per cent while the business added 100,000 active subscribers. But more rivals are entering what is a very competitive part of the market. Profitability remains constrained.
Against this backdrop, Nine (and its rivals) can ill-afford the cost of more regulation. Already, the Australian Communications and Media Authority has highlighted what it describes as public concerns about the integrity of free-to-air television news. It is quite possible an interventionist regulator might also look at standards in reality-TV programs.
The local industry will resist such impositions, of course, but if more contestants speak out and complain to regulators and tribunals, new rules could be imposed. Preemptive action might be in order given the industry is one scandal away from disaster. If the past year has proven anything, it is that if broadcasters don’t act, skittish advertisers will make decisions for them.
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