Five years is an eternity in the world of reality television. For the winning entrant of a hugely successful show, there’s plenty of time for an overnight celebrity career to take off, blaze, and then dramatically crash and burn. It’s enough time for a format to take off, become a national talking point, and then grow old-fashioned.
It’s been five years Big Brother, the father of all reality TV formats, went off the air. The show was the flagship of its era. It dominated the pop culture landscape — in fact, it defined it throughout the noughties and much of the next decade.
It set the tone in a decade when Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan were both suffering acute mental health crises elsewhere in the media, the details of which were followed and broadcast for entertainment.
Trouble-shooting famous women’s bodies was the USP of supermarket tabloids, which ran photos circling and mocking what appeared to be flabby thighs and wrinkled knees.
Things might seem bad now in a number of ways, but with hindsight the cultural climate of the noughties isn’t something many of us would be keen to revisit, although according to UK broadcaster ITV that’s exactly what he plans to do.
Last week it confirmed its revival Big Brotherwith a new series airing next year.
However, a lot has changed in the five years since the cancellation. Not so much in the reality TV industry this time as in the world around it. As a result, the series hasn’t aged well.
The prospect of his resuscitation feels unwelcome and slightly uncomfortable, like a call out of the blue from an ex you’d rather forget.
Values have changed. The format’s problematic ethics — subjecting participants, chosen for their propensity for “drama” (indicating mental instability and vulnerability in many cases) to stress, using alcohol and watching excitement erupt — has always been among the magnifying glass. But a few years on, his carnival of conflict, neurosis, despair, and harm now looks like a deeply primitive form of entertainment—like bear bait or the stock market.
The production company is of course aware of this. In tune with the mood of the times, the press release accompanying news of the restart shifted the emphasis to welfare and protection.
But no matter how much they tweak the formula, the fact remains that most reality TV formats are exploitative by nature.
After suicides in the episode island of love and mishaps and a death from anorexia followed Big Brother, much has already been said about the ethical issue with shows that exploit the emotional lives of vulnerable contestants for ratings. But the question of class is less talked about.
There is an ugly class aspect to exploitation in reality TV. I worked for a reality TV production company in London for a while in the mid-noughties. The worst aspects of the British class system were in action in the microcosm.
On the production side, the execs, producers, assistant directors, and researchers were predominantly white, affluent, and middle-class. A significant proportion of them were raised privately. Almost all were at the university. Graduates from Oxbridge and top colleges were well represented.
There were exceptions, but by and large, those who were successfully recruited or volunteered to take part as participants or contributors to the shows were from a different demographic.
During my year with the company, I didn’t meet a single one who grew up in a cozy family home with a spacious garden in their home countries, like so many of the producers.
It was mostly people who lived in cramped apartments – the type with windows fogged up from condensation from laundry drying on the radiator. They tended to be people without a large financial safety net. They were often hardworking people trying to make the most of the cramped conditions.
They were construction workers and bar workers and ordinary young people who had regular jobs and might see their lives stretching out in a predictable pattern of financial hardship and struggle before them.
For them, the promise of access to an otherwise completely closed, money-hungry media world represented a powerful act of wish-fulfillment.
We hear a lot on reality TV about cynical producers pulling the strings. In my experience, the term used was “produce” — shorthand for describing how they would influence participants, subtly getting them to behave a certain way or say certain things to create half-written narratives and character arcs meet, which then became the very public identities of the participants. False friendships were cultivated, subtle manipulation tactics were used.
A colleague I knew would adopt a fake Cockney accent when speaking to employees, presumably to convince them he was just like one of them. But it wasn’t him. It was a cynical form of nurturing exercised by those who had all the power against those who had almost none.
It was a two-tier culture where the producers and hosts were both protected from the negative consequences of their shows and could benefit most from their success.
Some of the most famous Big Brother Storylines and controversy seem to emphasize this. Jade Goody, who was publicly ridiculed for her poor educational standards, died of cervical cancer — a disease that disproportionately affects women of lower socioeconomic status. 2006 winner and Tourette’s sufferer Pete Bennett became homeless and ended up in rehab.
The target group of the new Big Brother a public is increasingly aware of the effects of privilege and the unfair power it confers.
But behind the scenes, shows like Big Brother are examples of unfair privilege in action. And just like society in general, those who start at the back pay the price.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/harsh-reality-behind-the-tv-scenes-41894674.html Harsh reality behind the TV scenes