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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Why lucecannon is a reality TV-free zone

Joe Swash wins I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here Dec 2008. ITV is a reality TV-free zone for lots of reasons. One: reality TV and coverage of it is everywhere so it doesn’t need to be here. Two, three, four, five and six: it’s just not my particular tasse du the and I shall attempt to explain why. But it will have to be quick and possibly not very thought-out, as I’m about to do some real, live, face-to-face net(not)working. A friend is coming round for coffee.

By reality TV I mean ITV’s I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here (above), Channel 4’s Big Brother and I include all the TV talent shows (Strictly Come Dancing, X Factor, Any Dream Will Do etc etc) because they involve people in so-called ‘real’ situations: learning to dance, learning to play an instrument, going on a journey of self-discovery. Blah. Sometimes they are ‘real’ people; sometimes they are celebrities. But it’s all (more or less) unscripted, which is the term they use for this sort of TV in the US and that’s a much better term than ‘reality’. There is nothing actually ‘real’ about this stuff – the moment it’s screened on TV it is removed from reality as most mortal people (viewers) experience it.

So if you want the latest news and gossip on the latest reality TV programme you can pick up any tabloid newspaper, or check the headlines when you login to Hotmail or whatever. It’s ubiquitous.

I will sound pretentious and superior by saying this, but part of my lack of appetite for these shows is because I want something a bit more from my entertainment and visual diversion. I want a certain knowledge which, like hard cash, I can trade in for something elsewhere in my life or in all our lives. Something that will resonate elsewhere in life or the world or our experiences of it. Something that will help navigate through life a little more happily or smoothly than if I didn’t have it.

Pretentious, moi? (Where’s Stephen Fry when you need him?)

I haven’t the time or headspace to keep up with which celebrity is in which jungle doing which trial. I’d rather gen up on plant names (oh dear) or literary classics which still inform our culture today. I don’t do that because I’m not a total twat and I don’t have the time. But I’d rather spend any spare time reading or gardening than watching stuff I don’t get anything out of.

Call me a counter-culturalist (some people do) but I’ve never liked mainstream, shiny floor TV entertainment – even as a kid. All those tinselly curtains behind ‘The Comedians’ drove me to my bedroom, where I’d let my imagination free with a book, rather than fester over whether Isla St Clair looked fetching in that week’s frock. I don’t like Brucie, even in an ironic, kitsch, throwback way. I can’t be bothered to gossip about people who I don’t know and who become unreal for me the moment they’re on TV. Nor do I waste precious mental energy on situations which have nothing to do with life as I or the vast majority of people live it.

Escapism and catharsis are vital, of course, but I don’t find them in this brand of TV entertainment. Sauce for the goose, or whatever. I choose literature, drama and the sort of comedy that strikes a nerve with me. I get distraction by dancing stupidly, on my own or with others.

I don’t mind that millions of others enjoy reality and Strictly Come Dancing TV and I’m sorry I make myself sound so culturally superiour by condemning this as entertainment for proles. I can enjoy X Factor or Strictly when watching them with people who are also enjoying it. I just don’t seek these things out. I also listen with interest when someone stages an argument about Big Brother, say, putting a mirror up to modern society. I don’t buy that argument because it’s too simplistic and wrong to suggest a show made for commercial reasons (ratings and advertising) has a wider social purpose. Big Brother is part of popular culture just as Facebook is, and that’s it’s place in history.

I am fascinated, from a TV industry point of view, when there’s a glitch in the system as when John Serjeant (how do you spell his surname?) quit Strictly because he was no good and BBC 1 controller Jay Hunt was torn between defending the integrity of a ‘talent’ show and an inevitable desire to protect her ratings with a popular character.

So there’s loads to say about reality and other entertainment TV – but plenty of other people to say it for you. There’s loads to say about lots of other things, too. I’d rather be a loose cannon, firing in different directions, as well as sometimes running with the masses.

Now for coffee, and a break to sort out those mixed metaphors.

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Update on life and some TV stuff

BBC 1's Little Dorrit

Conscious as I am of wanting to update my pet blog, I am constantly being sucked into the time vortex that is eBay. Christ, it’s time-consuming. All I’m trying to do is sell a few children’s coats and some (admittedly over-priced) china (which is complicated – there’s emotional baggage to get rid of too, but I can’t find an eBay category for that).

So I take the briefest of breaks from obsessively answering badly typed questions from potential buyers in Germany and Sweden (no, I do not want to post things to Europe) to let you know that I am finally ‘into’ Little Dorrit, although I feel I’ve missed an episode and am still not sure what the French guy is doing. Perhaps that’s the point.

I like Matthew MacFaddyen (I really should look up the spelling) in this; he’s all minutely quirky facial gestures and nervous smiles, which he sort of was in Spooks but it suits the part here. I haven’t really got any empathy with Amy Dorrit which is probably not good, given she’s supposed to be the heroine of the piece.

I can’t help but feel the scheduling of this drama has done for my engagement with it. I missed the first hour-long episode when it was first on, so had to catch up on iPlayer, and haven’t got into the two half-hour updates each week so am constantly running to the iPlayer which I note now inconveniently switches between allowing you to download a programme and only allowing you to watch it streamed from the website. I want the option to do either.

Two half-hours a week is neither appointment to view nor habit. If memory serves, Bleak House was on every night for half an hour, or at least more than twice a week. Perhaps I’m mis-remembering. Either way, Bleak House was by far a glitzier, more star-studded and overall impressive production than Little Dorrit. Wonder if I’m going against the critical consensus here? Perhaps I’ll never know.

Later, if time, I will appraise you of my feelings – and they are emotional – about I’m A Celebrity, Get Met Out of Here and Strictly Come Dancing (with or without John Sargeant).