Bye Bye Big Brother

Big Brother logo. C4/Endemol

So Big Brother is being evicted from the C4 schedules and it’s time to measure its legacy. It’s not all bad. BB certainly did revolutionise TV programming: along with coverage of Wimbledon and Glastonbury, it helped popularise the use of the “red button” to access other video streams; it also brought in phone voting, connecting the audience with what was happening on screen in a way that’s taken for granted on Strictly Come Dancing or X Factor.

The first Celebrity Big Brother – with Vanessa Feltz and Jack Dee – aired as part of a Comic Relief effort but soon became its own brand as commissioners realised how popular celebrity contestants could be in a reality show. I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here launched on ITV in 2002 and since then we’ve had all the Hell’s Kitchen, Celebrity Apprentice nightmares a reality TV fan could possibly want, with minor celebs competing in constructed reality situations.

None of this existed back in 2000 when the first series of Big Brother went out. Back then we thought Driving School was a reality show and Maureen Rees was a star.

At first, the TV industry didn’t think of BB as entertainment. It was launched – in the same year as Castaway 2000 – with producers talking about it as a “social experiment”. Some even wondered whether it should be thought of as a documentary. I was on a panel at the Edinburgh TV Festival in 2000 which considered exactly this. Sada (remember her?) had just been evicted from the BB house and was with us. It soon became clear it was best to think of the BB juggernaut as entertainment and keep it that way.

A C4 executive, Julian Bellamy, wrote compellingly yesterday about his 10-year involvement with BB and I agree with almost everything he says.

Apart from the point about BB being “a remarkable insight into the values and behaviour of the noughties generation”. Bellamy may be right that “For the first time, this generation was given a voice on mainstream television.” But I don’t think the programme simply observed the values and behaviour of a generation – I think it may have helped shape those values as well.

I used to believe the media simply held up a mirror to society. But now that I’m a staid, old mother of two I am beginning to subscribe to the idea that the media makes attitudes as well as reflecting them.

BB was part of the phenomenon that encompasses Heat, Hannah Montana and WAGs. A phenomenon that urges everyone (every girl) to be first a Brat and then another Katie Price, famous for being famous, celebrated not for particular talents (unless talents = tits) but for having appeared on television or in print.

It will be fascinating to see whether, and where, the tide is turning against this wave of wannabe popstars.

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The future and the blindingly obvious

 Guardian logo

Media companies, but particularly newspapers, have had their knickers in a twist for some time now as they wonder how to make money out of “online”. That is, the provision of information via the internet which, before the advent of the internet, they were able to charge money for. It is almost axiomatic today that if it’s “online”, it’s free. Unless it’s porn.

The answer to me, coming from a background of business publishing, is so screamingly obvious that I wonder how so many highly-paid executives have avoided it for so long. Don’t give unique information away for free. Whatever the medium.

The trouble is that, online at least, every organisation is waiting for another to jump first. No company wants to be the first to start charging online readers while others continue to provide things for free because the first to do so fears losing their audience.

Predictably, it’s taken Rupert Murdoch to question this lame, lemming (as in suicidal) attitude to the internet. A few weeks ago he said his British newspapers (The Sun, News of the World, The Times and Sunday Times) would have to charge for content provided online. Now more and more people agree with him, not least Simon Jenkins writing in The Guardian. The argument against charging is that advertising revenue will cover the cost of content that’s free to the end-user. But if that wasn’t true in the real world, why should it be true in the virtual world? And, as a business, why deny yourself a potential revenue stream? Altruism? After a recession? I don’t think so.

Having just renewed my mobile phone contract (for 18 months, thank you) and while questioning why I spend tens of pounds each month on a Sky TV package that I barely watch, another thing has occurred to me.

As a regular Guardian reader and user of its many free websites, I would gladly pay (what? £10 a month?) for unlimited access to its online news/comment/reviews sites plus – and this is the deal-breaker – a hard copy of the Saturday paper. To do full justice to Tim Dowling’s weekly column in the Weekend supplement you have to place the actual magazine on a table where it will be covered in a niagra of apple & elderflower squash and the discarded, slightly grey inner tubes of several half-eaten sausage rolls over lunch. (If only Waitrose sold empty pockets of cooked pastry, I’d save a fortune on deli goods.)

It then occurs to me that it’s only a matter of time before content from different brands such as The Guardian and Sky is bundled together in packages in the way that broadband, mobile and TV services are. OK, it’s more likely to be content from The Times bundled with Sky as they’re both ultimately owned by Murdoch. But I can dream, can’t I?

I have seen the future. And it’s sausage-shaped.

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Meerkat research

Meerkat Aleksandr Orlov

In the interest of feeding back to the media industry some of what real people think about their work, I offer this apercu.

I have just entertained two family members to three nights free B&B including evening meal (family maxim: house guests are like fish – they stink after the third day) and we fell, as you do, to talking about TV adverts. This was about 22.20 last night when, frankly, we’d run out of anything and everything else to talk about.

And so it came out that my father absolutely loves the ads. You know, the ones promoting with a Borat-inspired meerkat. Simples. He also loves the ‘Should’ve gone to SpecSavers’ one with the elderly couple getting an unexpected roller coaster ride when they thought they’d just sat down for a sandwich. He’s already laughing, he says, when the advert starts and doesn’t even know what brand it’s advertising because he’s waiting for the punchline: “What sort of cheese was that?”

He doesn’t get out much, see?

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