Ugly spats and indecent acts

Big Brother International
October 28, 2005

When Big Brother Africa was first broadcast, it was widely condemned for its explicit immorality; MPs in Malawi called for it to be banned because it was "corrupting the morals of our children", and President Nujoma of Namibia publicly denounced it.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, it was praised by a number of intellectuals such as Bankole Omotoso, who argued that the programme "has done more for the political possibility of unity among Africans than politicians can ever do". At the end of the first series, Nelson Mandela asked to meet the winner.

A similar polarity in the reception of Big Brother is mirrored across the world. In Germany, Otto Schily, Minister of Internal Affairs, wanted it taken off the air "on the basis of human dignity"; in France, protesters attempted to storm police lines to liberate the "hostages" from the studio; in Belgium, the press described the programme as "visual heroin", a "media virus", warning that "the floodgates are open for a flood of mind-killing rubbish", though others welcomed it as a "unique form of innovative television". In Holland, where Big Brother was born, initial outrage was soon tempered with plaudits, its inventor, John de Mol, being voted Dutch Broadcast Man of the Year 1999 by a jury of professionals.

Inevitably, a media phenomenon that has achieved such staggering global viewing figures, while attracting such extreme condemnation and approbation, will be an irresistible focus for academic study. "It has become an exemplar of the changing face of media theory and practice, paradigmatic for some, despicable for others," explain the editors in their introduction to Big Brother International . Whether you favour audience studies or cultural analysis, regard popular television as reinforcing social control or as an instrument for dissent, Big Brother is overflowing with scholarly opportunity. In "Debating Big Brother Belgium ", for example, Philippe Meers and Sofie Van Bauwel apply the whole gamut of popular culture theories to this ubiquitous television format, demonstrating how well it lends itself to different interpretations and readings. A recurring theme is the debate about public and private spheres and how these are blurred and called into question by the reality TV genre.

In her analysis of the Dutch public sphere, Liesbet van Zoonen argues that the programme has a subversive effect, challenging "the bourgeois division between the public domain, with its concomitant regulations, and the private, with its own code of conduct". Daniel Blitereyst seems to agree, rationalising the vehement reactions to the programme as "a complex form of a late-modern panic in an era where no centre of moral control can any longer impose its values".

The contributions focusing on audience analysis are less apocalyptic, though not always particularly revealing. It was hard to be startled by the findings of Daniel Chandler and Merris Griffiths that UK viewers tend to identify with people of their own gender and sexual orientation, but men more so than women. More interestingly, Fernando Andacht finds a surprising consistency among young viewers in Uruguay and Brazil, who were sceptical about the extent to which contestants had been produced or were deliberately playing up for the cameras. My colleague Annette Hill, who conducted the first in-depth research into UK reality TV audiences, reports similar findings, revealing a high level of media literacy among viewers. "When audiences debate the authenticity of performances in reality programming, they are also debating the truth claims of such programmes," she states.

In America, it is not just the audiences who are sophisticated about the media: the contestants are, too. Pamela Wilson describes how, during the first US series, a conspiracy developed between the housemates and their online viewers, who encouraged them to sabotage the programme. The interactive nature of the format is clearly a key factor in its success. According to Gary Carter, former executive director of programme affairs for Endemol International, interactivity is all about control. The entertainment value lies in the power balance, often uncertain, between the audience, the contestants and the producers.

It is an attraction that appears universal, given the extraordinarily global nature of the programme's reach. There are versions of Big Brother in 18 countries including all of Europe, Australia, Argentina, Mexico, Russia and Brazil. And punctuating the more academic analyses of particular aspects of the broadcasts are myriad insights into national differences and similarities.

In Big Brother South Africa , which featured a collection of white, black, Indian and mixed-race housemates, fundamental questions were raised about the legacy of apartheid and the viability of a multicultural society. We may have had the odd frisson of alarm in the UK when a contestant indulged in a spot of intimacy with a wine bottle, but in the Italian Big Brother there were 30 incidents of full-on sex in the first series. In Turkey there was anxiety about sexual identity, particularly among the male contestants. Australian Big Brother was keen to assert national characteristics such as manliness and mateyness, offering a distinctive extra layer of intertextuality by replicating a Neighbours image - a rare opportunity for reality TV to imitate soap opera.

Big Brother International is a timely collection that, by offering such a wealth of theoretical perspectives, not only makes for illuminating reading but also serves as a meaty introduction to the nature of media studies itself. But as John Corner points out in his introduction, there is still an underlying tension between public knowledge emphases, concerned with how the media operates in a political and social context, and popular culture approaches more concerned with meanings and values.

The result is that we hear a great deal about hybridity, peritextual indications and paradigmatic discourses; we discover modes of mediation, and unravel interlocking and interacting meanings. What is missing is opinion.

There is plenty of analysis but no criticism. Maybe it is too much to expect even one media scholar to voice the possibility that a daily feast of voyeurism involving undistinguished people with unedifying opinions and generally poor conversation, given to vulgar behaviour in the pursuit of pointless celebrity, may not be a wholly welcome addition to our screens. A courageous critic might have declared Big Brother a force for banality and tarnished values. But nobody did.

Sally Feldman is dean of the School of Media, Arts and Design, Westminster University.

Big Brother International: Formats, Critics and Publics

Editor - Ernest Mathijs and Janet Jones
Publisher - Wallflower Press
Pages - 261
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 1 904764 19 3 and 18 5

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