A victim of its own success: why Big Brother had to be evicted
The reality show has been eclipsed by social networking – a craze it helped create, says Ian Burrell
Thursday 27 August 2009
Love it or hate it, and there are plenty in both camps, Big Brother has changed our world. The activities of the show's housemates were not only the stuff of countless tabloid headlines, they provoked solemn statements from Gordon Brown and brought effigy-burning rioters on to the streets of India.
This was the show that created our modern celebrity culture, where a star can be famous in spite of – or perhaps as a result of – having no apparent talent whatsoever. It aroused a seemingly insatiable public appetite for the minutiae of these people's lives, which then created an entire genre of cheap weekly magazines.
Big Brother spawned the whole television genre of modern observational documentary – introducing the term "reality TV" to common parlance – and, even if we could never bear to look upon presenter Davina McCall, we could not escape the ripple effect the show had across the schedules as rival broadcasters rushed to find something similarly successful. Many TV viewers were happy to watch the more upmarket formats that followed in its wake, such as ITV's I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here or the BBC's The Apprentice. At the other end of the spectrum were gems such as Celebrity Love Island, Trust Me: I'm a Holiday Rep and F*** off, I'm Ginger.
Now, after a decade of shaping our cultural landscape, Big Brother has finally been shown the door. Next year's series, which Channel 4 is contractually obliged to make, will be the broadcaster's 11th and last as it signalled its intention yesterday to begin "the most fundamental creative overhaul" in its 27-year history.
The reality series costs the broadcaster up to £70m a year and Channel 4, which recently announced a £100m cut in its programme budget, claimed yesterday that Big Brother's demise would free up £50m for new shows, including a follow-up to director Shane Meadows's cult film hit This is England, shown as four one-hour dramas featuringThomas Turgoose.
As he outlined this new era yesterday, Julian Bellamy, the head of Channel 4, paid tribute to the part played by Big Brother in the evolution of the channel. "Big Brother has been our most influential and popular programme over the last decade," he said. "Big Brother will leave a huge hole and filling it will involve the most fundamental creative overhaul in our history."
Big Brother was something of a gamble when it launched on Channel 4 in July 2000. Made by the independent production company Endemol, it had previously been a success in Holland. James Herring, who did the public relations for the first British series, remembers that it had an immediate effect on the way television was watched, as a dedicated following emerged for the round-the-clock stream which Channel 4 broadcast on its website. "People were staying up all night to watch this unedited stream and to chat away online amongst each other," he recalls. "Big Brother was the first show to bring that online engagement."
Tabloid press interest only blew up with the eviction of "Nasty" Nick Bateman, the first Big Brother housemate to catch the public imagination. With the show still being billed as a "social experiment", Bateman was whisked away to a secret hotel to avoid the paparazzi. But by next morning he had been tracked down to a small hotel off the A1.
"A helicopter flew over the hotel and landed in a field, seven photographers climbed out and ran into the hotel," says Herring. From then on, Big Brother began a symbiotic relationship with the tabloids that lasted the decade.
More than any other title, Heat magazine embraced the show, its rise in circulation mirroring Big Brother's success. "We realised that every time we put Big Brother on the cover it sold well," said Boyd Hilton, the magazine's TV and reviews editor. He was kept especially busy as Big Brother 3 gave the show an audience of 10 million (and series average of 5.8 million), generating major advertising revenues for Channel 4 and giving a platform to the lovably gormless Jade Goody.
But it was not the critics slating it that did for the show, so much as the growth of the online world that had done so much to promote it. The emergence of social networking sites enabled the public to star in their own everyday dramas and those of their friends. In the internet era, swearing and nudity no longer seemed so naughtily risqué.
The growth of the web also speeded up life to the point where fewer people felt they had the time to invest hours, nay months, in the commitment to following the slow-moving adventures of another group of housemates. "Your investment as a viewer in getting to know 10 new strangers seems to be more of a drain on your time," says Herring, of audiences that have slipped to little more than 2 million.
Heat magazine no longer obsesses over the show, recognising that the core Big Brother audience no longer wants to wait a week to read about their favourite show. But Hilton feels the story is not over just yet. He believes Big Brother has been a "force for good", with its diverse mix of winning contestants, and credits the show for influencing television comedy and drama by creating a demand for filming techniques and dialogue with a greater sense of realism. Channel 4 might want to avoid the critics and start a new creative era, he says, but other commercial broadcasters might not feel so sniffy towards a show which still makes money. "I think someone will take it on," he said.
Big Brother in numbers
94.4% The highest proportion of callers voting to evict a single housemate in the UK edition. Nicole Cammack's popularity plummeted after on-screen arguments with her boyfriend Rex Newmark in BB9.
14 The number of relationships that started in the house, two of which still survive. Two babies have been born to BB couples. Tom and Claire from BB1 had the first and BB3's Lee and Sophie had the second.
28 The number of Big Brother series to air across the world this year. In all, 43 different series have aired at least once, spanning 72 countries.
20m The number of calls made to the BB eviction line during the first series.
69% The percentage of the UK population who watched BB1. Around 38 million people tuned in at least once.
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