Big Brother: Ten housemates reinventing reality


Big Brother
Channel Ten
7-7.30pm Mondays to Fridays
9.30-10.30pm Thursdays
8.30-9.30pm Saturdays
7.30-8.30pm Sundays


“It's just a game show”, said contestant Johnny to fellow contestant Sharna, in the second week of Channel 10's new “reality” television show, Big Brother.

For those who have been in a coma for the last six weeks, Big Brother is the latest in a series of internationally syndicated “reality” game shows. Fourteen contestants are locked in a house, isolated completely from the outside world — no television, no radio and certainly no telephone. Every square centimetre of the house is covered by cameras, which film the housemates 24 hours a day. Each 24 hours of introspective boredom is then condensed into half an hour’s worth of the most exciting bits (like feeding the chooks, or an argument over cards) and then shown on prime-time television.

Every Tuesday, the housemates each have to nominate two of the others for eviction. The general public, at 55 cents a vote, then gets to decide which one of the three housemates who garnered the most nominations is to be evicted from the house. In a live broadcast on Sunday night, the housemate with the most votes is evicted, and given 20 seconds to get out of the house. The last remaining housemate wins the $250,000 prize money.

The premise sets the contestants up in a situation designed to create conflict, and force them to compete with others just as they are becoming closer to them.

Big Brother is turning into a raging success for Channel 10. The show has a viewing audience estimated to be more than 1.6 million, spread over 5.5 hours of content each week.

The show uses the same techniques as soapies to get the audience in. Although nothing ever happens, the audience is kept hooked by cryptic sound bites, and flashes of footage that, when shown in full, turn out to be nothing much.

This titillation reaches its zenith on the Big Brother Uncut specials, shown for an hour every Thursday night. Although Channel 10 promises its viewers breasts, bums and live sex on these specials, the housemates' chastity restricts the footage to an excruciating replay of drunken conversations about sex — the one night stand Pete fell asleep on, Sara-Marie's snuffling that men never want you, but just a root.

Amidst the boredom, there are moments of vulnerability and intimacy — Lisa retreating to the bedroom to sob from loneliness and lack of privacy, Gordon having a wank under the covers and Johnny calling out the name of another housemate in his sleep.

It is at these moments that the show becomes both its most seductive and its most repellant. Seductive because of the natural desire of human beings to empathise with each other, but fundamentally repellent because of the lurid, voyeuristic nature of the empathy. Unlike a soapie, these people are not actors playing a part that has been constructed for audience consumption. They are real people unable to avoid the glare of the camera — forced to share their most intimate moments with the rest of Australia.

The show's producers are quick to point out that the housemates are free to leave whenever they wish, and that they are aware that they are being filmed. However, the media ban on the house is carefully designed, as far as possible, to make the inhabitants forget that they are being broadcast.

With the recent introduction of two new housemates, the existing gang enthusiastically introduced themselves and showed them around the house, seemingly unaware that the newcomers, from watching the show to date, already knew most of what they were being shown. The newcomers have been strictly banned, on threat of disqualification, to discuss the broadcasting of the show at all within the house.

In France, which has a local version of the show called Loft Story, civil liberties group Smile, You Are Being Filmed has organised protests outside the site, seeking to disrupt the show. Protesters, attempting to scale the building, have been fought back with tear gas. Smile, You are Being Filmed argues that the show's contestants cannot continue to give informed consent to gross invasion of their privacy when they are isolated from the consequences of that invasion. As a consequence of their action, the producers have agreed to turn the cameras off for two hours a day.

Most mainstream media commentators have attributed the success of Big Brother to the changes in audience taste. This, however, ignores the considerable interests that the corporate media have in making reality television work.

Big Brother goes beyond cheap; it's raking in a shitload of money for Channel 10. Although the up-front costs were steep — $4 million for the house, the prize money, 24-hour technical support — these are more than recuperated by the savings on prime-time actors’ wages, and scriptwriters. Then there are the money spinners — 250,000 votes a week at 55 cents a vote, eviction show attendance of 3000-plus at $20 a ticket, mobile phone alerts for 25 cents and ringtones for $2.75.

However, it is the cross-sponsorship deals that have elevated Big Brother into the high rating stakes, and the serious money. Deals between Channel 10, radio station MMM and the Daily Telegraph ensure that all of us are bombarded every day with information on the housemates, who they are, what they are like and who is likely to get evicted.

But is it what they are like? Both the editing and the commentary process are selective, designed to convince the audience of certain things about the housemates — Johnny is a back-stabber, Sara-Marie is a whiner and Ben is a likeable lad. These characterisations are justified by three-second incidents, and the point rammed home by the show's compere, Gretel Killeen. While pretending to portray reality, the show recycles all the normal television myths about human nature.

Humans, being social creatures, are naturally fascinated with each other. But Big Brother divorces that fascination from interaction. We are presented with pat cliches and stereotypes of human beings. We can watch people, but are denied the pleasure and responsibility of responding to them — with comfort or anger.

Gretel Killeen, in the opening show, described Big Brother as a celebration of humanity. It is anything but. Big Brother takes away that which is most human about our interactions with each other, the taking of collective responsibility. And that, Johnny, makes it far more than a game show.

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