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Is it time to kill off Big Brother?

It's 10 years since Channel 4 broke new ground with the first series of Big Brother. Surely it's now time to close the door once and for all

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Bea on Big Brother 10, 22 July 2009

Housemate Bea in the diary room during Big Brother 10, July 2009. Photograph: Channel 4 / Rex Features

Anyone who compiles or takes part in quizzes soon realises that the reliably killer question involves the identity of any of the participants in Big Brother or its Celebrity spin-off, apart from the late Jade Goody, Shilpa Shetty or, if there happen to be some TV stattos in the room, just possibly "Nasty Nick" Bateman. He helped to make the Channel 4 show famous by being thrown out of the opening series, of course. Bateman's offence – manipulating the voting process – now seems absurdly quaint in comparison with the racism, bullying, sexual exhibitionism and desperate craving for fame that subsequent contestants have displayed over the last decade.

This rapid amnesia about what happens in one of Britain's best-known TV programmes – does anyone now remember Rachel Rice, the 2008 winner? – is a sign of the crisis affecting the franchise. Part of the power of the show is that it had achieved the rare trick of being visible even to those who don't watch it, through coverage elsewhere.

But, for the first time in a decade, anyone who is not a dedicated viewer will have little sense that the 2009 contest is even proceeding, as previous media cheerleaders ignore the current tussle between "Dogface" and the other wannabes. This is significant because newspapers largely try to anticipate their readers' interests, and so the silence reflects an impression that the door of the house is closing.

Admittedly, as commissioners discover when they attempt to remove any regular item from the schedule, most programmes retain a basic hard-core audience to the end of their days and even beyond. Big Brother still has a very stubborn rump of viewers (between 1.8 and 2 million since the 10th series began on 4 June) and it is still possible that a dramatic twist – homicide, suicide, or swine flu sweeping the house – could make the numbers jump. But BB is now frequently beaten by rival offerings on BBC2 and its graph is clearly downward: the third series, for example, averaged 5.8 million viewers.

The biggest contributory factor is simply the passage of time: the fact that the show is now 10 years old. More than any other art-form, television is driven by audible ticking. If someone has an idea for a movie, a stage play or a radio programme that has to last for four hours, producers can accommodate this project if they want to. TV, though, is run on a largely inflexible grid system, in which programmes are allocated segments of an hour. Big Brother, for example, was conceived as what's known as a "x 30" but eventually settled as a "x 60" , with extensions to "x 90" or "x 120" for the introductory and concluding programmes of each run.

Beyond this, however, there's a strong suspicion that there is also a clock running on how long a successful programme can hold the audience's attention. And statistical evidence compellingly suggests that, for an entertainment format, the limit is eight years.

Changing Rooms and Ground Force – market- leaders in the home make-over genre that was the telly sensation in the decade before incarceration game-shows – ran from 1996 to 2004 and 1997 to 2005 respectively. Another 90s phenomenon, Noel's House Party, in which Noel Edmonds presciently invited the inter-active participation of both viewers and celebrities, also served exactly two American presidential terms.

So there may be something prime about the number eight, and almost any TV phenomenon you choose seems to illustrate this. The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing have currently been running for five years and there is already a feeling of age, as shown by the nervous reshuffling of judges on both programmes. Intriguingly, Big Brother's steepest and most sustained ratings dip happened after the eighth year. And, with this series, the feeling that a television shelf-life has been passed is greatly increased by the withdrawal of support from the media.

Although it has officially been sponsored by a succession of corporate brands – currently, Lucozade Energy – the most important patron of the format has been reporting. Big Brother's success was encouraged, from early on, by unusual levels of publicity. Most of the popular press, but the Sun, News of the World and Heat magazine in particular, were willing to give headline coverage to the housemates and their departures, both from the show and the rules. This symbiotic relationship with a TV format was not unique – it had begun with soaps, the red-tops regularly splashing on plot-lines and cast-changes in EastEnders and Coronation Street – but the remarkable aspect of this stage of the game was that such attention was being given to a series transmitted on a minority network, Channel 4.

The reasons why newspapers chased the housemates reflected changes in the conduct of journalism. Traditional reporting became more difficult: first because of budget cuts and then as a consequence of both celebrities and members of the public being given greater protection, by regulators and the courts, against invasion of privacy. Conventional stars also became less willing to cooperate with the tabloids: the set of EastEnders, for instance, became more resistant to journalists after a string of stories about performers, including Leslie Grantham, that exposed areas that the publicists would have preferred not to be seen.

In this context, the housemates were a Red Cross food parcel dropped on to the battlefield of Wapping. They willingly behaved badly in the public domain, their actions were recorded quite legally and consensually on tape, and they were unlikely to have lawyers or PR companies trying to spin their stories in a kindlier light.

Their names and faces were also immediately recognisable to readers in a way that would take a pop or movie star at least several months to achieve, and anticipated the later explosive fame, in another reality TV genre, of Susan Boyle and others. In fact, curiously, the combined readership of the papers reporting on Big Brother generally exceeded the size of the Channel 4 audience, so that some people clearly knew these fresh celebrities purely from the news coverage of them.

Nor was this fascination a purely populist phenomenon. For the first few series, I or another Guardian TV critic would be hired to cover the most significant episodes of each run on the news pages: the ejection of Nick Bateman was a headline splash in every paper except the Financial Times. Recently, though, the black-tops have cut back or abandoned their analysis, having come to the conclusion that what began as an interesting psychological project has become a forum where morons audition for fleeting celebrity.

This year, the red-tops have also opted out, partly because of a conviction that the show is finished – critics such as Ian Hyland of the News of the World and Ally Ross of the Sun have almost ostentatiously ignored the show – but also because the 10th series has had the misfortune to coincide with a news cycle of unusual intensity. Big Brother had previously benefitted from running in the summer when there are usually pages waiting to be filled, but, this year, a succession of fantastic happenings – parliamentary expenses, the death of Michael Jackson, swine flu – has sucked the oxygen of publicity away from the show.

Perhaps symbolically, the first of these outbreaks of media hysteria involved the death of one of the 2002 Big Brother runners-up, who came to eclipse all the winners in fame. It is given to few people to take a whole section of life with them when they die: cricket survived the loss of Don Bradman, popular music the demise of Frank Sinatra. But there seems every chance that the obituaries of Jade Goody will also be the death notices of housemate game-shows.

As with Goody, it's important to acknowledge that the span included commendable aspects as well as detrimental ones. The first series of Big Brother and the debut of its Celebrity sister were brave and innovative programmes, achieving a height of naturalistic interaction and depth of psychological insight that have rarely been equalled on TV.

But, like a young child invited to perform an encore of a cute song, the show rapidly became too knowing and desperate to be noticed. Big Brother became a perfect illustration of a frequent television paradox: the idea with a long economic life but a short artistic one.

Its effects on both television and wider society, however, were immense. Its biggest impact was to make power more precarious.

In recent years, beleaguered prime ministers, relegation-threatened football managers and CEOs facing hostile shareholder meetings have all complained about the rise of a "get them out" mentality, in which the public expects swift revenge on anyone who offends them, regardless of contracts, electoral mandates or previous performance.

During a football commentary last season, distinguished former manager Jimmy Armfield made a direct comparison between reality and talent shows and the increasingly brutal job insecurity of coaches: "Now, it's one bad Saturday and they want you out." Gordon Brown, in his various tributes to Jade Goody, may also have reflected that the mechanism of her success was a factor in the constant cloud of failure hanging over his premiership.

The consequences of Big Brother for television were equally profound. One repercussion was welcome: several actors have told me that they were encouraged to change their performance styles by the remarkable artlessness of the early series featuring real people. Seen beside the home-video spontaneity of the first housemates, conventional acting looked like overacting.

The popularity of the mock-documentary format in comedy and drama – in the semi-improvised dramas of Dominic Savage, The Office, The Thick Of It and others – can also be attributed to the presence of this benchmark of realism in the schedule. In a recent interview, Russell T Davies, saviour of Doctor Who and creator of Torchwood, argued provocatively that the rise and fall of Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent was, whatever moral concerns it raises, the greatest drama of the year and challenges the makers of fiction to come up with stories that engage the public and the media at such a level.

But, less beneficially for the medium, executives saw, in real-people formats, a cheaper way of delivering the pleasures of drama and documentary, with the additional advantage that economy could be dressed up as democracy. Those who argue that Big Brother has ruined Channel 4 are too apocalyptic – its comedies, documentaries and dramas have continued to out-perform larger broadcasters at the Bafta awards – but there has been a devastating shift in the perception of the network. A broadcaster set up to bring variety and innovation to the schedules is now most associated with a single brand that specialises in giving deranged wannabes a brief television career. Many producers feel that C4 put all its eggs in a basket that has turned out to be a basket-case.

It seems likely that shows in which strangers share a house or a tropical rainforest will turn out to have been a temporary genre, like makeover programmes, rather than a permanent format such as soap or news or drama. But the results of this 10-year experiment will hang around like radioactivity. The fact that the next television novelty after incarceration game-shows was the revival of talent contests (The X Factor, Britain's Got Talent) suggests that "real people" will remain the medium's favoured working material: partly because it is cheaper but also because television has become addicted to verisimilitude, or at least the appearance of it.

In both television and newspapers, there will be an attempt to reduce the cruelty and glee that have been central to both the production and the coverage of reality TV but, here as well, you wonder if the poison is in the water and nastiness – with inter- mittent outbreaks of sentimental guilt – is now a part of what we do. There is, with all due respect to the dead, a word for the state in which 10 years of Big Brother has left television – Jaded.


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Is it time to kill off Big Brother?

This article was first published on guardian.co.uk at 00.05 BST on Friday 24 July 2009. It appeared in the Guardian on Friday 24 July 2009 on p7 of the Comment & features section. It was last updated at 12.28 BST on Friday 24 July 2009.

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