A very real risk

Are reality shows getting too dangerous after a contestant dies of a heart attack?


In 2013, Zhejiang Satellite TV produced a diving show called Splash. Adapted from Dutch TV series called Sterren Springen, it followed a group of celebrities as they attempted to dive like Olympians.

Reviews were overwhelming negative. Some viewers even described the show as a form of exploitation that put the contestants in danger. In the pilot episode, the then 64 year-old actor Niu Qun risked performing a daring high dive, feet-first. Injuries were also frequent: Hong Kong actress-singer Charlene Choi bashed up her back during training and South Korean K-pop star Chae Yeon was said to have perforated an eardrum.

“Why the artists’ agents agree to this stunt show I really do not know,” a netizen wrote at the time.

It wasn’t just the celebrities that were at risk. An assistant to Shi Xiaolong, one of the contestants, actually died during filming. At the time, producers explained that he had gone for a swim at the opposite end of the pool to where Shi was training and that no one had noticed that he had drowned.

Last week, the reality TV format in China took another sombre turn when Taiwanese-Canadian actor Gao Yixiang, the first Asian model to become a face of luxury brand Louis Vuitton in 2011, died while filming another of Zhejiang TV’s shows: Chase Me.

A clip of the 35 year-old actor’s final moments saw Gao, clad in the show’s signature jumpsuits, running around a racetrack. Looking fatigued, he slows down before reaching an incline, and bends over as he uses his arms to pull himself up a ramp. He then shouts, “I can’t keep going,” before collapsing onto the ground. It is believed that Gao died from a cardiac arrest despite being rushed to a nearby hospital.

The producers of the series issued a statement saying they deeply regretted Gao’s death and that the television network would take “corresponding responsibility”. News of Gao’s death dominated the headlines, with many netizens expressing sympathy. But many blamed gross negligence at the show – which is in its first season – for contributing to the actor’s death.

“Filming takes place in the middle of the night and it is so cold in Ningbo this time of the year. The physical exertion is hard to imagine. Moreover, there is little or no on-site medical help [it took four minutes after his collapse before Gao was attended to]. If he had been rushed to the hospital right after his fall, the outcome could have been different,” one netizen wrote.

“You don’t have a heart,” another viewer thundered, addressing the show’s producers directly.

Chase Me is a reality competition that sees a group of celebrities compete with professional sportspeople – some of whom are Olympic gold medallists – in the middle of the night in a stage that is set in Ningbo, where the Zhejiang network is headquartered.

The contestants are put through the wringer by a series of challenges designed to push them to the point of exhaustion. Some of the obstacles – like having to cross a spinning bridge or climb through a vertical maze – are tough to tackle and physically draining. In between events, there is also little time for rest because in order to win, contestants have to keep running to avoid being caught (hence the name of the show). In the final stretch, the challenge is a 70-metre rope-climb before a zip-line for 140 metres to the finish line.

There were warning signs even before Gao’s collapse that some of the competitors were facing physical strain, even the sporting stars. In one episode that has already aired, boxing star Zou Shiming, 38 (he won three consecutive Olympic medals in 2004, 2008 and 2012), fell into a giant pit and failed to emerge. Eventually he had to be helped out by staff.

Similarly, Li Xiaopeng, also 38, and an Olympic gold gymnast, repeatedly said, “I can’t do it,” as he climbed the rope.

“To ask a bunch of people that were not formally trained to perform a slew of extreme sports, did the producers do any fitness tests? Did they bother with physical examinations? Were there any safeguards? Was the site prepared to respond to emergencies? Was the medical staff trained to respond quickly? There were so many issues that require reasonable and legal explanation from the show’s producers,” Entertainment Industry, a showbiz blog, pointed out.

Chief Entertainment Officer, another blog, says the high ratings and lucrative advertising revenues often come at the expense of safety in many of the reality show formats. “The way these types of competition-based shows engage audiences is to torture the celebrities. The more they have to suffer, the better the show will be,” a rival producer lamented to the blog. “So it becomes something of a vicious cycle. The next time they produce a series, they want to add even more dangerous elements, which should translate into high ratings and more buzz online.”

“Gao Yixiang’s death is definitely not a standalone case. I have taped reality TV shows before and they are terribly exhausting. Producers of these shows like to create tension and scenarios that are out of control. If a guest passes out, or throws up, or cries, the producers become very excited because this is exactly what is going to generate emotion from audiences,” an actress told MTalk, a chat show that airs online.

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