Big Brother's back – and he hopes you'll be watching
When Richard Desmond bought Channel Five he invested £200m in the ailing reality TV show. Now it has to deliver viewers
It was the pioneering reality show that turned television into a confessional and made celebrities out of nonentities.
Now Big Brother is at the centre of a broadcasting war as Channel 5 accuses the programme's original host, Channel 4, of a campaign of "dirty tricks" worthy of Nasty Nick.
A year after Channel 4 dumped Big Brother, the broadcaster is seeking to undermine the reality show's revival under a new proprietor, Richard Desmond. Pamela Anderson, Jedward, Kerry Katona and Sally Bercow, the Speaker's wife, are among the names predicted to enter the famous house when Celebrity Big Brother (CBB) returns on Channel 5 this Thursday.
For Desmond, whose media empire includes the Daily Express, Daily Star and OK! magazine, Big Brother is the weapon to relaunch Channel 5, which he bought in a £103.5m deal last year, as a serious challenger to Channel 4 and ITV.
Big Brother also provides a perfect opportunity for "synergy" within Desmond's Northern & Shell group. His newspapers have breathlessly followed every turn in the CBB recruitment drive. Sarah Ferguson is believed to have been offered £1m simply to take part in a task in the house without even staying the night.
The three-week celebrity run precedes a full series featuring the "wannabes" who will provide the cover pictures for Desmond's New! gossip magazine, once they have been evicted from the house and elevated into the ranks of D-list celebrities.
Desmond, who made his fortune as a soft-porn magazine publisher, is believed to have paid £200m for the rights to Big Brother for five years. But he is gambling on a brand that defined "reality TV" in the Noughties but was dropped when viewers tired of its parade of noisy attention-seekers. Initially hailed as a social experiment, Big Brother peaked in 2002 when the final attracted nine million viewers, with a series average of five million watching Jade Goody's misadventures. The series generated £68m a year in profit for Channel 4 and its producers, Endemol.
The fun soured when the 2007 Celebrity series degenerated into a row over racist remarks aimed at the Indian actress Shilpa Shetty, sending Channel 4 into crisis mode. The broadcaster, keen to extricate itself from a £180m deal with Endemol, dropped Big Brother after 11 years to focus on "creative renewal". The 2010 series drew an average of two million viewers, with four million tuning in for the final.
The man given the task of restoring Big Brother's lustre was in bullish mood as he took The Independent on a tour of the house, this time styled as a space-age bachelor pad. "This is the biggest and best set Big Brother has ever had," said Jeff Ford, Channel 5's programmes director. From now on Big Brother is a pure entertainment show... With Channel 4 the series became more of a circus, or a zoo."
Channel 5 believes Channel 4 is running scared of Big Brother's return. After delaying its schedule publication, Channel 4 announced the terrestrial premiere of the hit film Twilight on Wednesday, the day announced by national billboards as the return of CBB. It is now expected to schedule the Million Pound Drop live game show, presented by the former Big Brother host Davina McCall, against her old show on the all-important Friday eviction nights.
Ford, a former Channel 4 executive, said: "Why would they put a movie premiere on Wednesday night if it wasn't to try and affect our ratings? I'm not worried about what they do because I've got Big Brother. We are casting in a different way, looking purely for people who will entertain an audience."
By "entertain", Ford presumably means "get their kit off" judging from the transparent shower for two in the open-plan wet room visible to all from the garden. The days of "evil" Big Brother are over. The housemates will have Ligne Roset designer furniture to lounge on and enough drink to get them amorously lubricated.
Channel 5's problem is that The Sun and the Daily Mirror, Desmond's print rivals which drove viewers to the series in its heyday, have largely ignored the impending comeback. But Desmond is worth £950m and Ford believes the mogul's chequebook is helping to attract celebrities. "Richard has always said to me: 'If the channel needs something and you believe in it, come and tell me. And if I believe in it as well, we'll get it.' He's very enthusiastic about the show."
With no Davina to take contestants through their "best bits", Desmond reportedly asked Cheryl Cole to host Big Brother. She declined and Brian Dowling, a former Big Brother winner, will be the presenter. On eviction nights, Channel 5 will pair Big Brother with The Bachelor, a dating show starring the Welsh rugby international Gavin Henson, formerly engaged to Charlotte Church.
Channel 5's future is tied to reality TV; and Big Brother, the granddaddy of the genre, is now feeding on its spawn. "Celebrity" participants have been mooted from The Only Way Is Essex and Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, series inspired by Big Brother's defiant focus on ordinary people. Some have yet to attract the most basic form of recognition, a Wikipedia entry. "The important thing is how the group interacts. No one expected the George Galloway and Rula Lenska cat-licking scene," said Ford, sitting by the heated swimming pool in the floodlit garden. "But I do think people will be absolutely delighted with the line-up we've got."
Who's In – The rumoured cast list
Kerry Katona: The debt-ridden former pop star is said to be bringing her mother Sue into the house
Tara Reid: The US actress has appeared in TV shows including Scrubs and is a star of the American Pie film franchise
Paddy Doherty: A bare-knuckle boxer and star of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding
Pamela Anderson: Former Baywatch actress is said to be negotiating a limited stay for a fee of £100,000
Amy Childs: The underpaid The Only Way Is Essex star is moving on to CBB
Jedward: The wacky Irish Eurovision contenders, right, enter the Big Brother house in a two-for-one deal
Sally Bercow: The Speaker, John Bercow, is said to be trying to persuade his wife to reject the £100,000 deal
Charlie Sheen: The troubled star is now thought to be out of the running
Duchess of York: A tempting offer is apparently on the table for Fergie to make a one-day appearance
Murray Walker: The hyperactive 87-year-old F1 commentator could bring maturity to the house
Bobby Brown: The scandal-ridden ex-husband of Whitney Houston is seeking to revive his career
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