For a programme that, at its peak, attracted 10 million viewers; spawned a wave of local brands in some 70 countries, including India; and was once hailed as a "revolutionary" experiment in reality television the decline and fall of Big Brother has been as dramatic as was its rise.
When the series was launched 10 years ago few perhaps seriously believed that a show in which nothing really happened with bored participants, high on alcohol and nicotine, moping around and occasionally picking up a fight would be so successful . In the event, it became an “annual summer obsession” for millions of British viewers, as one critic put it, and ushered in a new era of “reality” television.
But, alas, there will be no more BB-blessed summers. Or rather there will be just one more. For, Channel 4 has decided that it has had enough of it and would not be renewing its £180-million contract with BB’s Dutch producers, Endemol, when it expires next year. The announcement about BB’s imminent demise had a ring of a funeral service as Channel 4 top brass lined up to pay tribute to it declaring that it remained the “most influential show of the modern era” and would be remembered for “pioneering new technologies and fundamentally altering how viewers watched television.”
They insisted that the decision to axe it had nothing to do with its falling viewership, which is down to two million, and declining revenues but was part of a “fundamental creative overhaul” of the channel’s programming.
“Big Brother is still profitable for Channel 4 despite its reduced popularity and there could have been the option to renew it on more favourable terms. That’s what a purely commercial broadcaster would have done but Channel 4 has public remit to champion new forms of creativity,” Kevin Lygo, Channel 4’s director of television and content said.
While it is true that despite an eight million drop in viewership figures, BB is still watched by more people than many other successful programmes the fact that eight million people have stopped watching it shows how much its popularity has declined. Indeed, Mr. Lygo admitted that it had “reached a natural end point.”
Put simply, the programme has lost its appeal and what once seemed “edgy” now looks terribly passé. After ten years, it has turned into a tacky formula and desperately needs some new tricks to revive it. Besides, the BB brand has acquired a negative image following a series of damaging controversies, especially the Shilpa Shetty-Jade Goody race row. Even at the height of its popularity, BB was (mostly) boring and attempts to sanitise it in the wake of these controversies has made it duller: so much so that it is finding it difficult even to find “interesting” participants while once there used to be a scramble to get on the show because it was seen as the quickest route to stardom.
The story of Cairon Austin-Hill, who took part in a recent episode, is instructive. Asked by a newspaper why he had wanted to be on the show, he said it was “not really my choice” and happened by accident. He had meant to accompany a friend to audition for BB but at the last minute the boy changed his mind.
“And I was dressed already, and up early, so I went to the audition instead. Next thing I knew I was bang on the show. I am a simple kid. I didn’t want fame or nothing. I had nothing to do over the summer and I thought I might as well [go on the show]. I wasn’t going to go back to sleep that morning,” he told The Times.
So, there you are. It has become that easy to get on to what, until a few years ago, was regarded as one of the most sought-after platforms for wannabe celebrities.
Meanwhile, Channel 4’s decision has prompted a rash of obituaries, mostly notable for their slightly awkward tone — mourning the “passing of an era” in British television combined with a barely concealed glee that the “damned thing” is finally over. The tone is consistent with the British middle class viewers’ somewhat ambivalent attitude towards BB: seduced by its voyeuristic contents but embarrassed to confess to watching it.
But for all the media attention (anyone who is anyone in the entertainment business have commented on it) few have actually shed tears over the BB’s fate. Not even its previous contestants. One former woman participant said that although she had fond memories of the show it was time for it to be abandoned.
“People have simply lost interest in it,” she said.
Many are asking whether the “demise” of BB marks the end of “reality” television. The consensus among those who profess to know about such things is: no. A certain kind of reality TV represented by BB may have had its day but, as one commentator pointed out, reality television per se will never die in an age when “an entire generation...will not understand anything unless it is presented as a three-judge talent show!”
Few have shed tears over the programme ’s fate. Not even its previous contestants.