The TV programme Big Brother has had a massive impact on today’s society for a variety of reasons. Some may say that it is the defining jewel-in-the-crown in reality television; it is without doubt the most recognised and quite possibly the most watched in an expansive genre. Its creation, by a Dutchman for the television company Endemol in 1997, spawned the first broadcast of the programme in Great Britain shortly after in 2000. And so the fly-on-the-wall docu-soap was born, followed by variations to the theme and structure, but in essence keeping the same core format of members of the public being kept locked away in a house, their every move captured by 30 cameras.
The housemates are, for the most part, isolated within the house. They are allowed no access to the outside world using any medium and in some shows, even books and writing material are not permitted, with the exception of religious materials such as the Bible. They perform tasks in order to win prizes and extend their shopping budget for the week. In previous years, the contestants were usually young, good-looking and charismatic, but as the show has grown in popularity, and therefore attracted a wider viewing demographic, they have gone for a mixture of people, old and young, good-looking and not so good-looking.
The show makes celebrities out of members of the public. No other show, in the past, has made people over-night celebrities quite like “Big Brother”. And the presenters, who were relative unknowns before the programme began, have now reached superstardom- from the main presenter Davina McCall to the voice behind the narration, Marcus Bentley. Never has the media been so intrusive or voyeuristic on the general public’s lives.
There is the element of voyeurism of the actual show, where producers, the viewing public and the media can look into the goldfish bowl and make assertions and draw observations, with news stories and gossip columns full aplenty with people claiming to have slept with a “Big Brother” contestants in the past. These kiss-and-tell stories have long been a feature of tabloids, but never before have members of the public, which is what essentially the housemates are, been given so much media coverage. Pictures of ex-housemates worse for wear after a night out is another tabloid favourite, and gossip magazines such as “Heat” seem to always have exclusives on potential relationships between the housemates. There have in fact been several marriages between housemates, much to the delight of glossy magazines.
The fact that they are locked away and observed 24 hours a day by the public is, by and large, a new televisual concept. Here we have a dozen people from all walks of life, of all races, religions, sexual orientations. They are, essentially, a cross-section of society. They are everyday people- they are certainly not superheroes or monsters, and yet their quirks and eccentricities make them appear more extraordinary than most of us. Big Brother’s producers stop at nothing in their selection process.
In 2006, the show had a man with Tourettes syndrome in the house, and he went on to win the show that year. He didn’t have anything particularly endearing about him except he would, at random, burst into a tirade of swearwords and jibber-jabber. He was seen as a modern-day freakshow, of sorts, and people were observing him just as they would a Victorian bearded lady, except this wasn’t a funfair- it was television, a literal media circus. His website says:
“When asked why Pete wanted to participate on Big Brother he replied: “to reach the top of my spiral to heaven and shine again. Also, if I was to win the money I would like to pay off my mum’s mortgage so she can finally live her life because she looked after me for so long. And I crave fame and would like to be a famous Touretter” (1) He achieved what he set out to do, by winning the ï¿½100,000 and raising the awareness of Tourettes in the process. For the first time, “Big Brother” was educational as well as entertaining. The main goal for the “Big Brother” producers is to make the show as entertaining as possible and draw the viewers in- they don’t intend to be informative.
Indeed, a fair proportion of teenagers know more about Big Brother then they do about politics, science, geography, history etc. Although most contestants only go on to become minor celebrities, there are the exceptions. Indeed, a number of former housemates have gone on to become cultural icons, most notably Jade Goody. Her comments have been cemented in “Big Brother” history, but she is best known for her participation in the Shilpa Shetty racism slur, despite being of mixed ethnicity herself. She is now a successful businesswoman and celebrity, worth between 2m and 8m, and her on-going battle with cancer has been recently well-documented in the media, and she has been voted the 25th most influential person in the world by “Heat” magazine.
The more discerning or well-read viewer will know the name of the show is taken from the book 1984 by Orwell, himself an eminent social critic. In the dystopian backdrop of the novel, society is controlled and monitored by “Big Brother”, an almost omnipresent and omnipotent character who wields power over the people in his totalitarian state of Oceania, and anyone who lives in the state is constantly reminded that “Big Brother is Watching You”.
They are, much like the housemates in Big Brother, monitored on small screens called telescreens, except the Big Brother contestants’ movements and actions are edited and then broadcast to the general public via television, or sometimes streamed live with a 15 minute window in case anything libellous is said or anything explicit shown at an inappropriate time. In recent times, Britain has become increasingly paranoid of “A Big Brother state”, where their every move is watched by CCTV cameras. Has Big Brother increased this sense of paranoia? Do we really live in an Orwellian society? There a 4,000,000 cameras in the United Kingdom. Mark Oaten, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said he was concerned: “We are slipping into a Big Brother society by stealth.” (2)
Up until around 5 years ago, no-one had heard of such a notion. But now, because of the TV programme, people are being made more aware of what a “Big Brother state” is, and of course the media are hyping it up-basically, the media is feeding the media. It is my opinion that Big Brother the TV programme has escalated this paranoia of being watched 24 hours a day by CCTV, as there is a resonance between what happens on Big Brother and what happens to the everyday man, woman and child on the street. Ironically we have became stars of our own TV show.
The proposal of ID cards, plus the possible communications data bill, where every e-mail we write, phonecall we make, text message we send, will become available to the Government, will only increase the sense that our every move is being watched.. It has echoes of Franco’s Spain and Eastern Europe, where Governments had huge amounts of data on citizens.