In the summer of 2000 Big Brother fever swept the country. This ‘Reality TV’ show was first aired and created in Holland and has conquered the globe. Produced by Bazal TV for Channel 4 it reached huge audiences and broke the record for the largest TV phone vote in British History; thousands of people voted every week to evict one member of the house. Every Friday at 11:00 p. m. , prime time for a 16-28 audience, evictions took place. Davina McCall, a lively young presenter, fronted the show.
The weekly eviction and run up was an immediate hit for Channel 4 the programme built on its popularity despite criticism that the show is populist and uninformative. Now with spin-offs everywhere and Channel 4 about to broadcast the third series of Big Brother, the criticism of the show still comes loud and clear. This television show was aired every day of the week: On Mondays it was the psychological analysis, Tuesdays were the nomination days, and so on. It even had its Omnibus on Sunday like the soap operas.
The house started with ten people, five women, and five men, a microcosm of society or so we were led to believe. They would battle it out over the 9 weeks nominating two other people each week to go to the public vote and eventually one person was left to claim their cash prize of i?? 70,000. It claimed to be ‘infotainment’, a social experiment never before tried, but with the entertaining twist of a soap opera or game show. Some people would argue that, in short, Big Brother is reality TV and even documentaries themselves, gone bad. Documentary is the oldest form of film making.
The first film was shot in France by the Lumiere Brothers, ‘Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory’; now in the present day the documentary still lives on. Although the documentary may have changed its shape and form over the years it still follows the same criteria, as suggested by Michael Rabiger in 1998 in his book. Rabiger states that the documentary should tell a good story but at the same time include contextual information. It should not be a textbook, for information can not be presented as “value-free”, and it should contain dramatic suspense.
There are other techniques or ‘codes’ that are also used in making a documentary such as content: interviews or talking heads is s techniques used almost solely in documentary film making. The most recent form of the documentary is the Docu-soap and Big Brother though some people have clamed that this is not a true documentary as Big Brother and docu-soaps do not fit Rabiger’s criteria of documentary film making. They are said to break the established codes of documentaries and people say that it is the end of the documentary, as we know it.
Although many people have criticised docu-soaps as ‘dumbing down’ they have brought documentaries to the masses and this form of documentary has been the documentary form immensely popular, now being shown on prime time BBC 1 and ITV. The docu-soap has become a main part of our viewing lives. In The Independent Fiona Sturges said: “It is no surprise to any-one that the docu-soap has spread like mildew across T. V. schedules”. Its very format contributes to the docu-soaps’ success for an informal style engages the mass audience in the whole issue of the banal every day experiences and involves people who we can relate to:
“Joe Public or should we say Jeremy from Airport, Maureen from Driving School, Jane from The Cruise has become an overnight celebrity”. (The Independent, 17/07/2000) These people and their lives are ones that the ‘average’ viewer relates to and wants to watch. This is as opposed to the traditional documentary watched by the high brow intellectual viewer wanting something that will challenge them. This is also the case in Big Brother where the contestants are ‘Joe Public’ as they represent the banal every day people on the street. This has been a major criticism of Big Brother and docu-soaps.
People say that Big Brother, the child of the docu-soap, contributed to the dumbing down of British TV according to the white, educated, middle-class, southerner or so the BBC would have you believe. Some people have criticised Docusoaps and reality TV as only providing entertainment when the purpose of a documentary is to inform as well as entertain. They claim that Reality TV does not do this, and does not fit Rabiger’s Criteria. They say that Reality TV programmes like Big Brother do not develop the audience’s knowledge of a person or of a situation.
They claim that these programmes contain little more than devised set-ups and created truths. They do not tell a good story, do not introduce engaging or interesting characters, and do not say much about the human condition. The participants are merely show-offs who are media-savvy and perform to the camera, meaning that Reality TV does not contain real-life situations. The programme-makers are simply producing cheap and lazy television whilst ignoring the art of investigative programme making.
Although audiences are satisfied with entertainment, this is in fact forced upon them by the dumbing-down of TV values that these programmes now reflect. It moves us further away from the original Director General of the BBC, Lord Reith’s view that television should ‘educate, entertain and inform’ in equal measure. I believe, however that docu-soaps and reality TV do fit Rabiger’s Criteria. Reality TV is based around confrontation of a human condition and uses, maybe not noticeably, contextual information. It is part of the craft of Reality TV that you are unaware of the levels of education and information that occur.
The producers of Big Brother would defend the show for its sociological initiative. This sociological experiment needed to be produced as it would be beyond a University to set up such a study. It is the place of documentaries to reveal the uninvestigated and in the case of Big Brother it probed the issues arising from confinement and forced companionship. These documentaries do tell a good story and like Big Brothers daily half-hour summary of the show they present characters in a selected and edited way, showing that there is a craft to the programme and they are not just an easy alternative.
They are all edited in the traditional style of documentaries, in fact I would argue more skill is needed to edit a fly-on-the-wall docu-soap than a traditional documentary as a skill is needed to turn the mundane 24 hours into an entertaining, educating half hour. In Celebrity Big Brother we saw how the media professionals were unable to sustain an act throughout and some showed extreme anxiety whilst confined.
When Vanessa Phelps recently received a television award for her part in this show she claimed that looking back on the video showings she felt very distanced and embarrassed by her behaviour broadcast to the nation, and in fact felt relief as soon as she left the confines of the house. This proves that the show was a sociological and psychological experiment that brought about unusual behaviour that proved to be both enlightening to the audience about the human condition as well as being extremely entertaining.
Watching the development and changes in the characters was crucial to the show and included moments of climax, such as Vanessa’s breakdown and Nasty Nick’s expulsion from the house. These moments took the nation by storm and the show became more than just a sociological and psychological investigation of the inhabitants of the household, but at times was an investigation into our own nation’s psychological and sociological state.
This also shows the social values of our society, where certain characters became idolised or detested by the viewers. Big Brother does have a place in our society. As the housemates chanted, it may be portrayed as ‘only a game-show’, but it is a much more intricate piece of documentary film-making than this would imply. It reveals the true psyche of the viewer, broadcaster, and the participant. It is not degrading for the viewer to enjoy this piece of television. It is not degrading for the producers.
Maybe it is degrading for some of the participants, but they were all willing participants and often ‘quality’ documentaries will degrade the participants in the process of enlightening the viewer. When flagging up controversial issues or investigations then quite often the traditional documentary-maker will have inevitably shown some of the participants in a bad light. It is not ‘damaging’ as Aaronovitch suggests but is informative, and led to moral and social issues being discussed in the public arena. This can only be good.