Even the losers win when the red-tops play 'Big Brother'

Tabloid editors cover the reality TV show more assiduously than the general election. Sholto Byrnes reveals how this makes for a pile of PR opportunities - and not just for the lucky winner
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The Independent Online

This weekend brought the first great media scramble of the new Big Brother season. Friday night's eviction from the most claustrophobic house in Britain saw this year's complement of show-offs, oddballs and the plain desperate emerge to unburden themselves to the assembled reporters. The game dreamed up by the Dutch production company Endemol may have initially been deemed unsaleable by its then UK creative director, Peter Bazalgette. But six years on, and now on its sixth successful series, the game is one where the stakes are higher than ever: This is both for its increasingly media-savvy participants, who have the potential to make millions from their temporary fame, and for the newspapers for which the 11-week series is as important as a general election campaign.

This weekend brought the first great media scramble of the new Big Brother season. Friday night's eviction from the most claustrophobic house in Britain saw this year's complement of show-offs, oddballs and the plain desperate emerge to unburden themselves to the assembled reporters. The game dreamed up by the Dutch production company Endemol may have initially been deemed unsaleable by its then UK creative director, Peter Bazalgette. But six years on, and now on its sixth successful series, the game is one where the stakes are higher than ever: This is both for its increasingly media-savvy participants, who have the potential to make millions from their temporary fame, and for the newspapers for which the 11-week series is as important as a general election campaign.

Teams at The Sun, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Star vie with their Sunday counterparts to cover the 24-hour live feed from the house in Elstree, Hertfordshire, where every movement and utterance of Makosi, Science, Lesley et al is recorded and broadcast to a grateful nation. To these papers, the "friend" willing to reveal a contestant's "kinky" secrets, or the ex-lover with tales of "saucy romps", is as sought after as a civil service whistleblower during an election. Now, however, the stories are as likely to come from contestants' accomplices or agents as those willing to call the phonelines the papers run.

On Friday afternoon the Daily Star's Big Brother team is readying itself for the first eviction late that night. Peter Dyke, "Mr Reality TV", comes in later than normal as it's eviction day, and he won't leave Elstree until past midnight. Already at her desk is Katie Blackbourn, who watches the live feed from 10am, when the Big Brother alarm clock goes off, until 6pm. Katie takes notes and gives thanks for the adverts; she will be doing this job six days a week until the series ends.

Reporter Marianna Partasides has come in off the road. She and a colleague who covers the north of England, Tom Savage, filter the hundreds of Big Brother-related calls the newsdesk receives daily before passing them to the Big Brother team. Normal working life will not resume until a winner is produced, and not even necessarily then.

Although the Mirror so far leads Big Brother coverage in terms of word count, it is the Star which bills itself as "The Official Big Brother Newspaper" ("as official as anyone else is," admits Dyke), and claims to tackle the series with even more enthusiasm than its rivals. Dyke turns the live feed on when he gets home and watches until 1.30am, and then wakes up to more before he goes into the office. "We can't watch all of it," he says wistfully, "because we do need some sleep."

The Daily Mirror's TV editor, Nicola Methven, shares out evening watching duties with other members of the showbiz team and receives an overnight log from the Ferrari Press Agency. Her paper, too, has been running at least a double-page spread a day, a mixture of news briefs, stories from the live feed, exclusives about participants' friends and family, and the "Pollyometer", in which reporter Polly Hudson lists the daily rankings of the house's occupants. The Sun relies on another agency, Kent News and Pictures, to fill them in on what happens overnight.

In all three, however, there is little of the overtly critical coverage to be found in the Daily Mail, which lamented "how quickly the sixth series descended into debauchery", or The Daily Telegraph, in whose pages Armando Iannucci spent a column raging about the series. This is because the red-tops recognise how important it is to their readers.

"It was one of the few things that guaranteed a marked increase in sales," says David Yelland, editor of The Sun from 1998-2003. "It was in the hundreds of thousands." According to Yelland, who confesses to not watching the series when he was editor, these sales spikes came not only when the paper had a major exclusive. "If you could put Big Brother on the front cover as much as you could it kept the sales high."

Ian Trueman, news editor of the Daily Star, concurs. "For our market it's dramatically important," he says. "We've found in previous years that Big Brother has entertained and created news for us too." After only one week, he says it is too soon to talk about sales increases, but he expects to see a "surge" in circulation. "It's like Coronation Street," he says. "People believe it and think they're a part of it for 11 weeks."

Opinions vary as to whether Big Brother is still important. Yelland thinks not, Methven thinks it may be even more so this year. But there is agreement over the changing nature of the participants. "They are PR-ed beyond sight," says Trueman. "Some of them have agents hidden away when they're in there. And then afterwards we find we're dealing with management companies, not individuals."

From the second series onwards a media and management company, the Outside Organisation, has looked after contestants' interests after they leave the house. "I felt in the first series they weren't really looked after properly," says Yelland. "They were famous for being famous, and there was nothing for them to fall back on. It was a very dangerous situation for them." Asked if concern about this danger informed The Sun's coverage of Big Brother, Yelland replies: "Not really, no."

If the newspapers' feeding frenzy after the first series caught Endemol unprepared, and unready to deal with the media requests Big Brother's participants received, relations with the press are now far more harmonious - cosy, even.

"The people in the house are allowed to tell a few people before they go in," says Peter Dyke. "If one of them tips us off about who's going to be in the programme we won't write about it before the series starts because Channel 4 would just pull them out." And with news agencies monitoring Big Brother 24 hours a day, Endemol's press office is saved from a deluge of incessant inquiries.

So the newspapers win; with opening-night viewing figures that can touch seven million (slightly down on last year) Channel 4 still wins; Endemol wins, and the contestants win (the top prize is £100,000).

For the winners there are also endless further earning opportunities. One former winner, Jade Goody, is estimated to have made £2m from appearances, TV shows and magazine deals. Whether our national culture can be said to "win" is another question.

But Big Brother and the media circus that surrounds it is here to stay. As David Yelland says: "I always say that I'm not going to watch it. And then I always do."

DIARY

Hello, and goodbye

Nick Robinson, ITV's political editor, is effectively out of the running for the job left vacant at the BBC when political editor Andrew Marr goes off to fill Sir David Frost's armchair. Partly it's a question of pride. The BBC bosses take the view that if Robinson wants the job, he should send in his CV like anyone else. He thinks that they know damn well who he is and where to find him. The Beeb also seems to be in cautious mode and Robinson deemed a bit too willing to ask ministers the questions that really annoy them. Mark Mardell, Marr's old deputy has been appointed Europe editor, so it begins to look like a shoo-in for Newsnight's Martha Kearney.

A gem of speculation

Rumours that Geordie Greig is being lined up by his old employer Andrew Neil for Boris Johnson's job at The Spectator may be music to The Tatler editor's ears. But Tintin-lookalike Greig is less pleased about another story whistling around Conde Nast's HQ, which links the name of society writer William Cash with the top job at Tatler. Cash may be considered a buffoon by some, but he has the right credentials, being best pals with Elizabeth Hurley, married to the jewellry heiress Ilaria Bulgari, and the son of the veteran Tory MP Bill Cash. "The Spec story is all very flattering for Geordie," says a friend, "but he needs to keep his current job for the moment. "And how infra dig to be unseated by someone whose family fortune comes from name tapes."

Nice job if you can keep it

The BBC is threatened with more strike action over job cuts proposed by director-general Mark Thompson. Of the jobs earmarked for the chop, 1,730 are in admin, which includes publicity. Not wishing to single anyone out as an example of BBC waste, we were curious to see the job description of one publicist in sport responsible for "rowing, bowls, horseracing, darts and winter sports". The BBC shows the world darts and indoor bowls championships in January. So once winter sports are out of the way, and the Grand National and the boat race done with, it's off to the races for eight months.

Daylight robbery

Staff working on The Sun's Friday splash seem to have forgotten the elementary error usually beaten out of trainees with a copy of McNae's Essential Law. The intro said Chelsea FC had been accused of "robbing" fans by charging them £30 for photos with the Premiership trophy. What they meant was over-charging - robbery involves theft with a threat, or use, of violence.

Moral minority

Paul Dacre's decision to hire Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn to write two columns a week for roughly £3m over three years has set the cat among the pigeons. One Daily Mail columnist, the moralistic Melanie Phillips, is in a terrible tizzy about Littlejohn's arrival, worried that her own contract may not be as secure as she had thought. Another Daily Mail columnist, Simon Heffer, who counts himself among Littlejohn's friends, has been gravely opining that Littlejohn will have to rein in his drinking. Meanwhile, Dacre is like a child who has just rattled a cage of mangy lions.

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