Billion Dollar Game, by Peter Bazalgette

It's only a game show - but it changed the face of television
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The Independent Culture

The jacket of Peter Bazalgette's book cheerfully announces that the Daily Mail named him one of the 10 "worst Britons" for bringing Big Brother to Britain. Leaving aside the question of whether that is an exaggeration of his importance, Bazalgette is plainly well qualified to write this book: in effect, a history of the origins and worldwide success of Big Brother.

In this respect, the subtitle misleads, with its claim of "how three men risked all and changed the face of television". While Bazalgette does offer glancing discussions of the careers of Paul Smith, creator of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and Charlie Parsons, who thought up the Survivor desert-island format, his attention is overwhelmingly focused on John de Mol: Big Brother's Dutch progenitor.

Smith and Parsons found new ways of getting viewers emotionally involved, and in Millionaire, Smith showed the potential of revenue streams outside the traditional advertising break. The programme's prize money is paid for entirely by the premium-rate lines on which members of the public apply to compete. But it was De Mol who put these new ideas together with new technology. For Bazalgette, the most important feature of Big Brother is the way it exploits new technology, with mobile-phone updates and telephone voting.

The book is always readable; its accounts of the shock and outrage that have accompanied Big Brother's various manifestations are particularly enjoyable. But it has a void at its heart. Perhaps because Bazalgette is so uncritical, John de Mol remains a grey, shadowy character. You learn a lot about his business deals but nothing about what makes him tick.

I wished, too, that Bazalgette had engaged more positively with critics of Big Brother. On the one hand, he views the programme as a microcosm of society, so that complaints about it amount to shooting the messenger. At the same time, he implies that it has beneficial social effects, such as promoting tolerance. This allows him to characterise critics as intolerant snobs.

When Endemol first pitched Bazalgette the idea of locking people up under surveillance, he wrote in a memo that "This is far too cruel for the UK market." I interviewed him recently, and tried to pin him down on whether he found the idea personally offensive, or was second-guessing audience reactions. He avoided a direct answer.

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