Big Brother

Saturday, June 9, 2001 by

So who did you vote for? That’s what Ian Jones asked you on these pages last time around, during Big Brother series one. This year, you could even be forgiven for thinking the same question was genuinely about politics. But, if it was, would you have a ready answer? About 42% of you wouldn’t, so say the statistics. And, as Tony Blair settles back on a big, comfy chair in his own personal diary room, he must be suppressing some niggling worries about the worst electoral turnout for 80 years. Although the official spin rattles on about “the politics of contentment” and a general feeling of “moral authority”, it’s worth pointing out that the new government only has the explicit, cross-in-a-box support of less than a third of the Great British Public. What a let down.

In the Big Brother house, special arrangements were made for those contestants who wished to cast a vote. Reportedly, the production team was reluctant to allow even this one-way connection to the outside world – not surprising considering the botched job the housemates made of it anyway. Of the 10, three decided not to vote and Helen/Hilda (“What’s a Liberal Democrat?”) used her vote to curry favour with the viewing millions, reasoning that it was worth upsetting the Tories if Labour supporters were on her side come Friday night. Surprisingly, the tactic seemed to work – although a choice between Welsh Helen and English Penny was always going to inspire a somewhat nationalistic mindset – and the Great British Public ejected the most fascinating housemate without having to shift from their sofas. What a let down.

Despite all this frenzied voting activity, like real life, we’re left with little but a return to the status quo in the house (Penny is replaced by Josh, a Hobson’s Choice if ever there was one). And, as heavily predicted, the General Election allowed a return to the status quo back in the House, with a similar reshuffle planned. So what’s new? Well, it’s not quite so spurious to draw parallels between these two most popular of popularity contests if you consider the way in which the media (and by that I mean each concomitant medium) present the experience to us.

In direct comparison to last year, Big Brother 2 is far more available – and in far more consumable forms – than it has ever been. With a clear run of five years in Labour’s second term, surely those at Millbank must be tempted to spend the time learning how to appropriate the Big Brother 2 voting technology and replace the tired old ballot box? Channel 4 bosses, conversely, must be clapping themselves on the back, having stolen the march on BBC1′s interactive Wimbledon service (no pun intended) by getting Big Brother interactive on-line across most of the digital platforms this week. If you can’t motivate the masses to vote, take the vote to them. Early statistics indicated that something in the region of 450,000 poll “hits” were pulled in through Sky’s TV-voting system in the three days before Penny’s walk of shame (accounting for around 38% of the total vote). At 25 pence a go, that’s £100,000 per eviction that Gordon Brown wouldn’t mind seeing a percentage of.

Last year, the only way to enjoy round-the-clock coverage of the Big Brother house required a high-bandwidth internet connection and a lot of patience with a badly-designed website. This year, there’s an embarrassment of riches, tempered by a fair share of glitches. The website is vastly improved (original producer, Victoria Real, under the close watch of Endemol and C4, designed a more intuitive and accessible interface but, for some reason, decided to issue company-wide annual leave on the site’s launch date). However, this year’s early-adopters of technology (those that took the digital shilling) have to be as understanding as their ‘Netcentric cousins while the gremlins in the interactive packages are dispatched. Strangely, the drop-line internet voting system that debuted during Celebrity Big Brother hasn’t carried through to this series, Endemol citing the public’s hostility to a “discontinuous” experience (although another possible explanation is Endemol’s hostility to a disappointing bottom line). Digital viewers, on the other hand, have had to suffer an annoyingly discontinuous experience over on E4, where a heavily edited Big Brother Live audio stream (as libellous and abusive comments are “sound-dipped” to placate the ITC) renders the dialogue between the housemates patchy and incomprehensible at times. (The programme’s web forum, hosted at the C4 site, has generated much discussion about the nature of these censored conversations. Viewers claim they can read the contestants’ lips and can see that many of the exchanges contain neither swearing nor legally dubious comments.) When the interactive services finally launched on Wednesday (although officially two days early), the public had been impatiently waiting nearly a week for them. Funny how promises are moderated and mediated over time, smoothed down by governing bodies and made to seem less radical. For the record, Big Brother Live is actually about 25 minutes behind the web-based streams.

However, it’s significant to note that the digital services launched in week two. Like the spin doctors of politics, the gadgets and gizmos (“push the red active button to vote”, “choose a video stream”, “read Karen Krizanovich’s sex tips for Brian”) are embellishing and, to some degree, concealing the real meat, the real issues. Four video streams (two live, two repeat streams) are offered, alongside a topical “question of the day” yes/no vote (for which viewers must pay to take part). Heavyweight commentators (among them, Vanessa Feltz – ba-boom tish!) have been drafted in to add a running commentary in a strap across the bottom fifth of the screen. But if a week is a long time in politics, it’s an eternity in the Big Brother house. As has been pointed out elsewhere, week one’s task (to keep a bonfire lit for five days round the clock) ensured that there were always two housemates awake (and gossiping) at any one time. Great stuff for those insomniacs viewing the overnight feeds on the digital channel. Week two’s challenge (to memorise first aid techniques and put them into practice) led to the housemates learning by rote from a manual. All conversations were therefore pretty much reduced to question-and-answer testing sessions, hardly stuff to set the tabloids alight or keep the viewers entertained. As Chris Moyles demonstrated on Friday’s The Big Breakfast, one can’t help but be spoiled for choice at 7.30am, flicking between shots of each motionless and dormant bedroom. What use is all this technology if there’s nothing to actually view?

What little of interest that did occur in the house this week made it to the newspapers, as usual. Zammo-lookalike Bubble shaved his head, Beckham style, and hoped for a chance to watch the televised England footy game in Greece. And, er, that’s it. Indeed, The Sun carried no Big Brother 2 stories on either Thursday or Friday. It seems that, football or no football, the producers and press officers are the ones who took their eye off the ball. Even Josh’s late substitution was played badly. E4 viewers watched him wander, nonplussed, into the house from the diary room at 1.30pm on Saturday. The sound, naturally, cut out for the duration.

Instead of feeding stories and news from the house, the press releases are quoting statistics like so many MPs on Newsnight. During week two, Big Brother 2 (on C4) apparently battered the opposition’s ratings (both BBC1′s Ten O’clock News and ITV’s Survivor were the unlucky also-rans). Survivor has retreated, Hague-like, to the backwaters of the schedules. E4′s figures have more than quadrupled since the launch of its 18-hour coverage (eclipsing UK Gold), taking it to a 2.6% audience share. Exactly how many of these viewers remain by the end of Popworld is unconfirmed. Less well-publicised has been the news that Victoria Real is planning to lay off 20% of its staff and that the executive producer of the Big Brother website has jumped ship.

Of course, last time around, the hype-machine was a lot more cautious about the programme. By week two, there was divided, if not indifferent, media interest in the programme (remember those five minute updates on C4? Unthinkable now, eh?) and a propensity towards rumour-mongering that, this year, has been replaced by “human interest” stories (the real lives of the housemates, the sex, the scandal). Like a weasel-faced, media-savvy politician, series two of Big Brother has become less accountable, less likely to apologise for not being “worthy” (no-one really believes that the psychologists are treating the programme as anything other than a freak show), more likely to chin an offending protester. The increased visibility of the contestants is an outsized mirror of the increasingly public representation of government (the childishness, the confessions, the warts and all). It’s fair to say that only the Nasty Nick episodes brought in the big ratings for series one. A nervous breakdown by Penny might have done the same for series two. Now we’ll never know – but how would it have served us as viewers, anyway? A distraction? Something to worry about? Or a video stream of same-old same-old which, although we choose to believe the illusion of interactivity we are presented, continues indifferently onward?

So, as Tony Blair returned to Downing Street on Friday morning, the housemates woke up to another day of glorious sunshine, unaware of the electorate outside or, indeed, any message they might be sending to it. All’s well in the country, at least for the government and their press officers, yet there is clearly voter apathy and a sense of discomfort. When all’s well in the Big Brother house, the contestants sit out on the decking and sunbathe, listless and bored. The production team must be praying that the viewers don’t begin to feel the same way. So much for the feelgood factor.


Comments are closed.