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 of TV: the government must decide

Family & remote control. Ofcom

The TV industry may not agree with Gerhard Zeiler’s assessment of Channel 4 and Five being “complementary broadcasters” (the cultures of the two places are radically different, as is their history), but C4 changed the day it started selling its own advertising in 1993.

From that point on, its public service remit has been in tension with the need to earn money and operate commercially. C4’s commitment to making loss-making, public service programmes such as Dispatches and Channel 4 News is therefore already being tested by its need to survive commercially. A tie-up with BBC Worldwide would not end this commercial tension but simply bring in more cash, just as the end of the ad sales arrangement with ITV did in 1998. That money went on digital channels Film4, E4 and so on. A merger with Five would also perpetuate the tension between public service output and commercial revenue. But at least the new entity would have a larger share of TV viewing and advertising. In these days of doing fewer things better it seems the most realistic option.

The public service brodcasting review which has come to a head today – like the countless others before it – has taken place in and among the TV industry with the general public still not having much of a clue about how broadcasters are owned and/or funded. Ofcom insists it has done “detailed audience research”. But look at Annex 8 of the report on public service broadcasting in which Ofcom tells us it interviewed 2,004 people in July and August last year.

When asked unprompted what the licence fee pays for, less than half of respondents mentioned any aspect of the BBC. In other words, a huge swathe of people – 56% in this survey – do not automatically link the BBC with the licence fee. Only 2% of people in Ofcom’s research correctly said the licence fee pays for all of the BBC’s services. Far more, 24%, mentioned TV channels/programming/TV technology generally in connection with the licence fee.

This gives a truer picture of the level of ignorance about how TV is funded than the results of the next question where people were prompted with a list of services that the licence fee could pay for. It’s far easier to answer a multiple choice question than an open question where you have to supply your own answers. When prompted with a list, 87% of people mentioned at least one BBC service (mostly BBC 1 and BBC 2) when asked what the licence fee pays for. Only 37% knew all of the BBC’s services are paid for by the licence fee, even when prompted with the right answer.

Against this background, it’s impossible to argue about what the public “want” from public service broadcasting. The public show what they want by using their remote controls: they watch BBC 1 and ITV 1 in their droves; they make programmes like Strictly Come Dancing, I’m A Celebrity and Big Brother “popular”; they don’t watch C4 News and Dispatches in huge numbers. That is the reality and only a certain amount of tinkering with the format of public service programming will change it. There are just too many other things to do and too many other ways of getting information.

So the public won’t care or particularly miss out if C4 and Five merge. Unless C4 suddenly stops selling advertising altogether, it must continue to behave commercially however it’s set up. The government should now decide what it believes will give the viewing public the best of all options in future: the popular and the worthy. Over to you, media secretary Andy Burnham, who is giving a speech tomorrow.

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Public service broadcasting: the public’s view

Note to the industry: my partner, an Oxford-educated man who watches a bit of TV although admittedly spends most of his time reading books and doing other things, was surprised to hear that C4 is a publicly owned corporation. He thought it was a sort of BBC 2 to ITV’s BBC 1, which I guess it was when it launched.

In this context, Ofcom’s protracted public service broadcasting review plus the work of the government convergence think tank not to mention the legions of consultants and public affairs execs beavering away on the future of public service broadcasting look like the most colossal waste of time, energy and money. There’s a limit to the amount of detail that’s needed here. The public doesn’t know much or care – Ofcom’s latest pronouncement on public service broadcasting showed less than half of 2,000 people mentioned the BBC when asked what the TV licence fee is for. The licence fee currently exclusively funds the BBC.

As for C4, it is caught between two stools – commercially funded and therefore the home of Big Brother but meant to be public service minded and therefore expected to make Dispatches. Just privatise the thing and see if Dispatches sinks or floats – as a documentary strand it’s had to change with the times anyway and is a world away from erstwhile ITV strand World in Action, for instance, because of the market which has created so many alternative distractions, on TV and elsewhere.

That’s my succinct and rather glib answer to the question of what public service broadcasting should look like in a couple of years’ time. And keep fighting for the BBC, with its complex mix of the popular and potentially commercial and the less popular and commercially unsustainable.

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