Conor Dignam on Broadcasting
Why Channel 4's next celebrity eviction must be 'Big Brother' itself
Monday 21 July 2008
Politicians and TV critics have slated Big Brother for years, but when the bookies start shortening the odds of TV's most infamous reality show surviving, it's a sign that perhaps the end really is nigh.
Last week, the Australian Network Ten axed Big Brother from its schedule, after a desperate bid to inject interest by asking Pamela Anderson to be a guest in the Big Brother house. The ratings continued to plunge, and the network decided enough was enough and pulled the plug.
That, and one suspects the ratings and performance of this year's Big Brother in the UK, has been enough to persuade Ladbrokes that the odds of the British version being axed should be reduced from 16/1 to 8/1.
It's a view also shared by many in the broadcasting industry itself, who believe the format has become tired and predictable and that the audience and housemates all now share the same level of cynicism towards the show itself. The audience too, is turning away. The first 40 days of this year's BB have been the worst performing since 2001, down about 9.1 per cent compared with last year, with total share of viewing down by more than 5 per cent.
Spend just a few minutes watching this year's Big Brother on Channel 4 and it's easy to understand why the show is losing its appeal. It is a format that built its reputation on the ability to surprise, but there are no more tricks in the box. The novelty of the first few series, of discovering characters, is now lost in the predictable casting and the overriding sense that the ambition of everyone in the house is some form of D-list celebrity.
A couple of months ago, BB's executive producer, Philip Edgar-Jones, told Broadcast that Endemol, the global format's owner, was "declaring war on wannabes" when it came to casting for this year's housemates. If that's the case, it's a war Endemol has badly lost, as this year's crew resemble little more than the bunch that came before them last year, and the year before that.
They want to be on the cover of Nuts (if they're blonde and buxom) or Heat or even get a presenting job on a digital youth channel. Their agendas are as transparent as the programmes' increasing desperation to find something to excite the audience.
The housemates too often come across as cynically vying for airtime in their rows and spats and stunts. Even housemates being evicted for bullying or racism isn't a shock any more, it's a predictable piece of tawdry reality-TV theatre.
And let's not forget – because it is a critical point in this question – Channel 4 is a publicly owned channel with a public purpose that must come before making a profit.
Channel 4's remit is to be bold, to innovate, and to bring new and different content and voices to air. Once Big Brother did all of those things – and even when the critics and politicians were baying for its blood, it still did things that were different and often challenging. There was truth to the suggestion that BB raised issues about gender, sexuality and race in ways that were often positive for a young audience. But the justifications look increasingly thin, and the ultimate arguments have become about it being too expensive to kill off.
The current contract for BB would keep the show on air until 2010, and it is possible that we will have two more years of it. If Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan (no fan of BB anyway) can extricate the channel from that contract, then he should do, and declare that there isn't enough left in the format to keep it going. Endemol would at that point be well advised to rest the format, taking it off air for a few years and letting viewers get used to life without Big Brother, so it could return in the future.
Right now, the bookies have it right; it's time for Channel 4 to ask Big Brother to leave the house.
The controllers who don't watch television
I had dinner recently with a TV channel controller who was impressively passionate and articulate about his own channel's shows, scheduling and viewer experience.
On the subject of other channels and their shows, he had much less to say. The truth was, he said, most of the time, when not watching his own shows, he preferred to get a DVD box set and settle down to watch US programmes such as The Wire and Dexter. This was no great surprise.
The often unspoken truth about many TV people is they don't actually watch that much telly – and they certainly don't watch that much of it in the same way as the rest of us do. So commissioners will, of course, watch all of their own output (which sometimes can't be easy). And they will also be duty bound to watch the output of their colleagues from the same broadcaster, just so they can be well informed about their rivals' failures.
They will usually watch most of this output either in their office (not too much time for that), travelling to work, or at home at the weekend, when the kids allow them to get back to the pile of DVD "screeners" on their desk.
What they don't do is watch that much TV as it is actually broadcast – which means they don't have the same experience as the audience when it comes to trailers, advertising or overall viewing experience.
Producers are usually worse. They often rarely watch the channels they then end up pitching ideas to.
There are notable exceptions – and the best in the business – those people who adore TV and actually have a high regard for their audiences, and watch lots and lots of it. They can talk with insight and enthusiasm about shows across a range of genres and channels.
But if many of the people who commission TV are increasingly turning to box sets of US shows for their own viewing, what does that say about the TV they are creating for the rest of us to watch?
The Beeb must be more transparent over big bonuses to executives
It is almost as predictable as Big Brother. The BBC annual report is published along with a spate of headlines about fat cat BBC bosses and their bonuses.
I won't dwell on the detail, other than to say that massive pay rises and significant bonuses were still paid to top BBC executives, despite the failures of management on the issue of trust last year – and the thousands of jobs being lost at the BBC.
Director general Mark Thompson rightly and honourably declined to take his bonus. There was the inevitable argument wheeled out during the course of the bonus debate about how the BBC has to pay competitive rates to bring the best people into the organisation. But there are two things that the trust fails to address sufficiently in its analysis and defence of these big salaries and mega-bonuses.
The first is what these executives actually do to receive these bonuses. I understand the detail may not be suitable for the public domain – but giving some idea of what particular executives are expected to achieve before they get a bonus would be helpful. Particularly as, unless they are in BBC Worldwide, they have no commercial targets, so their only measure of financial success can be running their budgets properly, something they are surely expected to do anyway.
The second, and more important, point is what price should be attached to the freedom those who work for the BBC have in being at the heart of an organisation with no profit pressure, and billions of pounds in public funding. Top BBC execs, we should also remember, never get made redundant; they stay until they choose to leave or take a pension. So there are massive advantages and privileges that come from working and running the BBC, rather than, say, ITV or Sky.
The BBC Trust should seek to put some value on what those public sector privileges are worth to BBC executives – and then deduct that sum from their overall remuneration.
Conor Dignam is digital content director for Emap Inform
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