“This is Big Brother”

I have spent the last two evenings lying on my living room sofa watching the launch shows of this year’s Big Brother. I always like to watch the launch shows even though I never watch the whole series religiously. I usually watch the first week or so, stop watching, pick it up again when it’s shown at lunchtimes and there’s nothing else to watch over the summer when I’m at home, stop watching again and it’s hit or miss whether I watch the final. I find it interesting to watch the initial groupings of friends form and who gets on with who. It reflects the social experiment feel that the series originally had – a group of people meeting for the first time, who they side with and how they react to certain situations. For someone who loves people watching, who is intrigued by people and would love to study/work with audiences  in the future (i.e. discovering an audience /group of people’s reactions and thoughts to broadcasting), the first week or so of Big Brother always grabs my attention.

This blog post is going to provide a little bit of context about Big Brother and its evolution (for any readers who are less familiar with the programme) and review some of the points of this year’s launch that stood out to me.

Big Brother originates from a Dutch reality programme that was created in 1997. It was the idea of producer John de Mol for a a programme to be created which was a reality-gameshow in which ordinary people are isolated from the outside world in a specially designed house. The participants engage in tasks (the gameshow element) and each week a participant, or housemate as they have become known, is evicted. The programme is an easily transferable format which has been exported across the world. Big Brother UK is just one of the many versions. It has sold so well to countries because it has the simple requirement of putting people into a house – any other characteristics can be adapted to suit respective national needs.

In the UK, the programme began in 2000 and was broadcast on Channel 4. The first few series captivated audiences and felt like a social experiment – seeing how ordinary people behaved in an isolated space with strangers. Since then, it seems as contestants have become more media-savvy and aware of how they need to present themselves. Also, it has become more of a platform for aspiring models and fame-obsessed individuals to achieve their 15 minutes in the spotlight. The programme was broadcast on Channel 4 until 2010 when its final series Big Brother 11 was shown and a special ‘Ultimate Big Brother’ featuring a mixture of previous housemates from the main series and its spin-off Celebrity Big Brother was also shown. Ultimate Big Brother signalled the end of the programme on British television screens – it was the Big Brother to neatly end the format.

However, following the programme’s demise on Channel 4, rival commercial broadcaster Channel 5 acquired the rights to broadcast new series and so Big Brother’s story continues. This year’s edition is titled Big Brother: Power Trip. This year and last year’s edition have both had themes which suggest that being on a new channel, the programme is naming itself via themes rather than the linear structure of how many series it is on. Themes, I suppose, also help with all the graphic design like the logos and the interior design of the house, generating a unique look.

This year's Power Trip eye logo

This year’s Power Trip eye logo

So three key points that made me question the contestants (and the audience) this year were mostly about representation and construction of character.

  • Some of the contestants are VERY media-savvy and have been featured in various media forms already – This suggests that some contestants are furthering their already existent profiles. In the house this year are a woman who was involved in a sex scandal with a footballer who has reconstructed herself following negative newspaper coverage, a part-time actor, contestants of previous reality shows (apparantly Winston was on the itv2 show Girlfriends?), a journalist and a prominent Youtube  beauty vlogger. Whereas in previous series, contestants have been eager to start their “careers” as famous figures through participation in the show, it seems that this year’s contestants are already familiar with that lifestyle. There are very few that I would class as “ordinary” people this year. This media awareness could affect how they present themselves which I reckon will cause quite a few problems for the editing department!
  • The LADS received the best reactions from the crowd – This made me uncomfortable as some parts of these characters were harmless but other parts really angered me. The traditional lad stereotype really annoys me. The typical lad is associated with sport, booze and sex and holds anti-feminist views which are often conveyed through “humour”. Some aspects like the anti-women remarks that are encouraged by online sites like The Lad Bible really do not sit well with me at all. I’m sure that Winston and Marlon, the two self-proclaimed lads in the house, are alright people and that I shouldn’t prejudge. The lad persona may have been exaggerated for the sake of their audition and VT. It just really angered me that they rated women in terms of their appearance and as sexual conquests rather than as human beings.
  • Power = business – It seemed in the VTs that most of the participants are businessmen/women or entrepreneurs. It reinforces the notion that you can only be powerful if you are involved in this field of work. This notion is similarly represented in programmes such as The Apprentice. It particularly annoyed me that a lot of the women in these jobs were power dressed in their VTs in suits etc. as if that is the only way power can be conveyed. It seems that in television women cannot be powerful or strong unless they are represented as businesswomen or warriors, basically any persona in which women adopt primarily masculine traits such as aggression and superiority. I think women can be represented as powerful or strong in both fiction and non-fiction television programmes without resorting to pseudo-masculinity.

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