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17 June 2003Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Big Brother - why bother?
The annual Big Brother row is becoming a summer fixture, like football transfer speculation and rainy barbecues.

by Graham Barnfield

This summer's Big Brother has provoked a familiar set of reactions.

For devotees, this is another chance to spend Sunday mornings reading up on Friday's evictee and their formative (group) sexual experiences. Another opportunity for satellite and cable TV-owners to tune in live to 'The House' in the small hours. (For those confined to terrestrial channels, E4 combines sheer tedium with cutting away to footage of the garden every time the moral guardian monitoring the video feed anticipates the use of the word 'fuck'.)

Another chance to watch human lab-rats undertake unlikely and often unchallenging challenges. Another run of Friday night eviction shows with hostess Davina McCall bellowing and emoting on demand.

Away from The House, responses to the show are equally ritualised. 'BB4 can never be as good as BB3 was', say the trendiest of fans. 'A new low in dumbing down', say traditionalist TV critics. Supporters of the show then routinely accuse BB4 refuseniks of snobbery - they point to the volume of votes gained by black, female, lesbian or gay housemates in the past, as evidence that the show represents a tolerant and diverse Britain on the move. (These claims may yet be confounded by the eviction of three consecutive 'girl' contestants.)

Initially a product designed for a more playful adult population (1), BB4 and the furore surrounding it suggests that a new summer ritual is in place, with the serried ranks of opinion-formers trotting out the same position year-in, year out. A form of Mods v Rockers for couch potatoes, the annual Big Brother row is becoming a holiday fixture, like football transfer speculation and rainy barbecues.

Fortunately, some attempts are being made to move the debate on. In Shooting People: Adventures in Reality TV (2), Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen argue that reality TV can only be seen as a sinister development, with its cavalier use of psychiatry and often dubious experts as a fig-leaf of respectability. Their concerns were confirmed when, as authors of probably the most hostile volume on the genre to date, they were invited to appear on one of BB4's commentary based spin-offs.

For Breton and Cohen, the format seems unstoppable and monolithic, co-opting all who stand in its path. In places, their palpable hatred of Temptation Island and the like compounds their judgement: volunteering for a TV show which may involve a bit of sleep deprivation is not the same as having it imposed in Long Kesh or the gulag. And one can only treat Bachelorettes - IN ALASKA! as the terminus of John Grierson's documentary vision if you take the documentary claims of that show and its ilk at all seriously.

We should assess reality TV as entertainment rather than as non-fiction reporting
If we must row about reality TV every summer, assessing it as entertainment rather than non-fiction reporting is a sensible starting point (3). As they say in the European Capital of Culture - calm down, calm down.

Brenton and Cohen's book is thought-provoking despite its daft claims. Anyone who describes E4 magazine show Big Brother's Little Brother as 'not unlike being trapped in an elevator with two hysterical boy bands and an angry dog' can't be all bad.

Yet in a way their assumptions add to the problem. Sure, the broad, post-Cold War social shifts do help to explain changing attitudes to privacy and public displays of emotion which, in turn, fuel Reality TV's tearful money shots as the tension gets too much. Perhaps they also explain why a reported sixth of all BB application videos involve nudity or prospective housemates on the toilet.

But presenting past contestants - many of whom make embittered cameos in Shooting People - as victims, feeds into the same cant and psychobabble that the authors condemn.

Graham Barnfield is a contributor to Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(1) See James Woudhuysen, 'Play as the Main Event in International and UK Culture', Cultural Trends, Issue 43 & 44 (2003): 97-154

(2) Sam Brenton and Reuben Cohen, Shooting People: Adventures in Reality TV, London: Verso, 2003. Buy this from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(3) I argue this in more depth elsewhere. See 'From Direct Cinema to Car-Wreck Video: Reality TV and the Crisis of Content', in Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))



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