Big Brother is the Terminator of reality TV
Viewers may have moved on to the shows it inspired, but the franchise is not dead yet
Big Brother may be watching us, but fewer people are watching Big Brother. Photograph: Channel 5 / PA Wire
Writing recently about the 20th anniversary of TV3 had me thinking about how television seemed to lunge right into a new era around the turn of the Millennium, not only in Ireland, but internationally too.
Then on Friday, ahead of the launch of the latest UK series – the 19th! – of Big Brother, it was confirmed that both civilian and celebrity versions would not return next year to Channel 5, and it was time for another nostalgic trip into the annals of TV.
In the summer of 2000, I remember being sent a text message about the breaking news that was “Nasty” Nick’s eviction from the Big Brother house for playing the new game too well. I remember, too, the first episode on Channel 4, when the first crop of unsuspecting housemates ventured into a house together in a pre-filmed segment with zero fanfare and the barest modicum of hype.
Within days, Big Brother was the subject of countless thinkpieces in which very serious people decried this cheapening and possibly exploitative new reality television genre, only to forget themselves and conclude that they couldn’t stand Contestant X and Contestant Y was clearly an awful human too.
Although one is an Irish broadcaster now owned by a US-controlled multinational and the other is a global programming franchise created by a Dutchman (John de Mol), there have been several points at which the history of TV3 and the history of Big Brother curiously link up.
That TV3 Group / Virgin Media Television has been buying the Irish broadcast rights of the UK series from its maker Endemol Shine since 2015 and shown it in this market is perhaps the least interesting of these.
There has never been an Irish version of Big Brother, though if TV3 could have afforded to make, well, anything much in the early years of its existence, when Big Brother was one of the biggest and most youthful circuses in television, it surely would have done so.
It was a democratic game show that happened to put a spotlight on misogyny, racism, bullying and the many uses of a bottle of wine
Alas, constructing and rigging up a TV house with dozens of cameras and editing the footage into a coherent nightly show was never a low-cost endeavour. By the time TV3 was in a financial position to commission Irish versions of surefire international franchises – such as The Apprentice and The Great Irish Bake-Off (presented by Big Brother graduate Anna Nolan) – the potency of the Big Brother brand was already in decline.
For 11 years, Channel 4 raked in advertising revenues from its high nightly viewership. But, for a broadcaster with a public service remit, dependence on the creatively stale Big Brother was not a good look. What could, in 2000, be classed as a “social experiment” with a straight face had become a festival of predictable manipulation. It was a democratic game show that happened to put a spotlight on misogyny, racism, bullying and the many uses of a bottle of wine, but could equally be accused of revelling in the many controversies it generated.
After Channel 4 cut the cord, Endemol took it to Channel 5, now owned by US conglomerate Viacom, but back in 2011 owned by Richard Desmond’s publishing group Northern & Shell. From this point on, front-page interest in Big Brother was most reliably found in Desmond’s newspapers. It was a far cry from the saturation coverage of the early Channel 4 period, which had prompted unconnected titles like magazine Heat to ditch their usual celebrity cover stars for a parade of freshly famous contestants.
The law of diminishing returns was stark. While the final of the first series attracted an audience of 9.45 million to Channel 4, the final of last year’s series brought in just 1.11 million to Channel 5.
Perhaps a fairer comparison, however, is with the final of this summer’s Love Island – a show that owes its existence to Big Brother – which won 3.6 million viewers for ITV2.
The knots of the industry have grown ever more entangled during the last two decades, much like the Big Brother format itself
And Big Brother, as Endemol Shine pointed out, has still been Channel 5’s top-rating show since 2011. But plenty of observers will agree that the decision of Channel 5 and its controller Ben Frow – who was TV3’s director of programming between 2007 and 2012 – not to renew the contract with Endemol Shine is more healthy than it is brave. Television needs novelty.
Headlines declaring the end of Big Brother are premature, however. Big Brother, airing in some 20 countries this year, is the Terminator of reality television.
Sky may have denied any interest and Channel 4 has ruled out a comeback, but in the UK that still leaves ITV. Speculation that it could pick up the franchise has spiked with news that ITV plc is in the running to buy Endemol Shine from its current owners 21st Century Fox and Apollo Global Management. (Note: a broadcaster may buy a production company, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will commission its shows.)
Another potential bidder for Endemol Shine is the “super-indie” production group All3Media, which is 50 per cent owned by Virgin Media Television’s ultimate parent Liberty Global. Liberty, meanwhile, also has a 10 per cent stake in ITV.
The knots of the industry have grown ever more entangled during the last two decades, much like the Big Brother format itself.
Think of the business back then as being like that first, simple series of the show, which sweetly concluded with runner-up Anna Nolan doing lunges down the hallway to stave off her boredom. Now the industry bears a closer resemblance to latter-day Big Brother: it’s a fiendishly complex game of comings and goings, with an insanely large cast and attention-seeking twists.