Big Brother

Friday, August 4, 2000 by

When Big Brother finishes, one of the legacies it will leave (besides provoking or truncating extended debates on issues of privacy, representation and exploitation) will be much discussion on the use of the web in conjunction with television. Doubtless Victoria Real (the design team behind the Big Brother website) will fire out a flurry of press releases boasting that they have changed the TV experience forever.

The watchword is now “interactivity” as television seeks to jump the next Big Thing. And whilst Victoria Real will have some justification in helping itself to the biggest slice of the pie, in reality they have shown that interactive TV can be a stuttering, flawed beast. The BB website, whilst allowing a welcome extension of our opportunity for voyeurism, has some basic problems. And we’re talking really fundamental stuff here. The site itself may only be viewed in one resolution (1024×768), which is a classic example of a word oft bandied about on OTT: reductionism. On the one hand we’re liberated with 24 hour access to the BB house, on the other we’ve got to configure our computers to a set criteria to do so. Hmm.

Overreaching oneself is certainly no crime. Ambition of the scale presented by the web accompaniment to the programme is welcome; however a clear admission of those aspects that just don’t work would be useful. Trawling through the broken links, straining against the muggy sound, attempting to pursue features that patently aren’t implemented (the online voting process for example) or – and more often than seems acceptable – failing to get into the site at all are all maddening barriers to our experience of interactivity. If something doesn’t work, fair enough, but the BB site unfortunately will not acknowledge its problems. If the server is overloaded, that’s understandable but to leave the registration process untouched online, with no indication there’s a problem, is frustrating indeed.

OK, OK. There are problems, and that they aren’t acknowledged is the greatest of them all, however as the weeks progress the site itself is becoming steadier and therefore more of an essential component of the BB experience. This week, we began in anticipation of shifted allegiances and dynamics in the house in the wake of Sada’s assassination. Most surprising of all was how quickly any impact she had (and for the first two weeks she seemed to be, overtly, the prime mover) had dissipated. From Nichola’s quarter came a welcome reassessment of her place within the politics of the house, and a commendable chunk of self-awareness. She admitted that her viewpoint had been skewed by the factionalism that had broken out in the days leading up to Sada’s ejection and one felt that perhaps an onset of camaraderie was about to hit the house. Thankfully, the nomination process, which was broadcast on Tuesday, reinstated the hostilities that keep us watching.

Andrew’s utter bemusement at being nominated was telling indeed, his perception of himself did not allow even a scintilla of suspicion that he might be nominated for eviction. To see him struggling with this inversion of his self-image was compelling. Meanwhile, Caroline took to the news with her accustomed amateur-dramatics – underplaying the impact and then continually harping on about the situation for the rest of the week. OTT has already touched on the issue of editorialisation in Big Brother, this seems to be the only programme on television that legitimises hatred of its participants and in fact promotes such a reaction in order to capture viewers. Whilst we may have secretly looked on at Castaway 2000 (the obvious “good” twin toBB) to, in part, jeer at some of the islanders, this was always done in contradiction to the programme’s agenda. With breaker-bumps throughout the week on C4 featuring Caroline’s honking laughter and Andrew’s boasts about his sexual exploits, our hatred for the householders was not only invited, it was positively incited.

Returning to the website, then (and it’s a confusing business flitting between the web which transmits live from the house, and the television which has a day’s lag) it was fascinating to see what the BB production team decided to leave out of the next day’s programme. Those online lurkers peeping in on Wednesday night would have found a house where all meaningful social interaction had ceased (hard to reconcile with that day’s TV version, and the apparently self-aware Nichola). Ensconced in their bedroom, Caroline and Nichola ranted in the most reprehensible fashion about their housemates. Some of this has been captured on the site’s news section which reports on Nichola’s assessment that “Tom is a knob ‘ead, Andy is a knob ‘ead, Craig is a knob ‘ead” but doesn’t touch upon the litany of foul-mouthed, mean-spirited verbal abuse that ensued. Caroline moaned, at one stage, that “as soon as the boys realised we weren’t interested in them sexually, they stopped trying.” Such a crass statement could have been fatal for her if it had been included in the following day’s programme. Likewise, Nichola vowed to drop out of all house activities in a flurry of “fuck ‘ems”. That neither moments appeared might raise an eyebrow, but we can always conclude that the production team simply felt there was better material to show. The web-access could be quite a bane for the BBprogramme itself in that regard, allowing some of us to second-guess and query quite fundamental decisions taken in what we do and do not see. Big Brother may be watching them, but we’re watching Big Brother.

For those web-watchers, the programme finally caught up with things on Thursday as we witnessed the ill-tempered house meeting that had eventually driven Nichola and Caroline into their foul reverie. Meanwhile, Andrew was edgily orbiting Melanie, hoping that melancholy and tragedy would break her resolve to his rapidly escalating advances (it did). The house, as Friday drew closer, was suddenly more fractured, less communal, more nasty than ever it had been: and wonderfully so. Here was the real soap opera we had craved for, and with a sublime villain in Nick.

A word about Nick. Let this review of Big Brother become a snapshot of the very real, enjoyable conjecture the programme stimulates, and permit me a moment of pure clod-footed speculation that will probably become embarrassingly outdated in a matter of days. But remember, I write this as we are but three weeks into the “experiment”, and this is how it is now. So, Nick. Unlike the other members of the household, here is a contender. Nick is a player who plots his moves on a fair bigger map than one that details from here to teatime. Speculation has been rife that he is a “plant”, a stooge sent in to ensure there is tension and intrigue in the house (and apparently this was done in the Dutch original). This rings true, from his publicity shot that shows him in an Alec d’Urbervillesque “schemer” pose, to his shifty demeanour and his quiet, urgent conversations (or those quiet, urgent conversations he eavesdrops in on). This man has an agenda. Perhaps it’s simply to win, perhaps it’s to be a glorious villain, but if he is for real, if he is simply someone who’s lucked through the selection process, then it does seem a mite irresponsible for C4 to whip up the depth of hatred for him that it has. And this goes beyond simple irritation at an annoying laugh. On Friday’s programme, which saw Andrew tragically being voted out of the house, one could see his astonishment at the anti-Nick sentiments that flooded from the baying crowd. For now, Nick is the main reason for watching Big Brother, and by far the best thing in it.

Whilst the website has patently improved since the series began, one could also witness C4 tightening up those slacker aspects of the programme itself. Friday’s double-bill was much better than last week’s quite slapdash affair. The time-wasting vox-pops had been ditched (although perhaps this was to make way for the breaking news of Andrew and Melanie’s first kiss) and most importantly we were not privy to a pointless preview of the voting results, and learnt who was to be evicted at the same time the housemates did. The resultant interview with Andrew proved to be less interesting than Sada’s, but at least this time round it felt as though our host for this edition, Davina McCall, knew what she was dealing with and had some sympathy for the viewers’ expectations. The only palpable fumble was in not confronting Andrew with the full scale of Nick’s machinations (and the eventual unmasking of the cad in front of the housemates is certainly one of the hooks that keeps us coming back) leaving him somewhat bemused at the response his erstwhile friend was provoking.

Beyond the remit of this review (and going by the above header we should have parted company with Big Brother after the second edition on Friday) we return to the web-watcher’s experience of the programme over the weekend, and more nuggets of information for the internet voyeur to digest and ponder upon. So, the task has been set for the housemates to learn semaphore, and more interestingly an unholy alliance between Melanie, Nick and Thomas has been cogitating on the next round of evictions, and via a tortuous process of second-guessing and politicking fingering Craig as the vital component in who lives and dies during week four in theBig Brother house. How this will be reflected by the TV version when it returns on Monday is in many ways as interesting as the progress of the housemates.

We will be watching.


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