Spitting Image

I dipped into "Big Brother" for the third time this series on Friday and saw a fairly bubbly girl called Rebecca 'evicted'. She seemed like a harmless individual, so why did the public pick up a phone and vote her out? I then saw her being interviewed again, on one of the companion shows ("Big Brother's Little Brother") and discovered why - the presenter, George Lamb, pulled her up for bullying and showed her video evidence of other contestants fairly traumatised by it. Rebecca didn't appear to give a shit. Why the heck did Davina McCall give her such an easy ride on Friday, when she had subjected previous contestants with a slightly more rigorous interview? They were giggling together like sisters! But then Davina is trying to treat it as a light entertainment gameshow. And herein lies the dichotomy of the series and why I tried avoiding it this year (quite apart from the fact it eats up your Summer if you become addicted to it) - what's the payoff between when something is entertainment and when the people involved are victimised? There's a very real danger, if we stand idly by, for it to turn into the "Big Brother" episode of "Doctor Who"...

My second encounter with "Big Brother" was after it predictably ended up in the newspapers - all of the newspapers. Another few weeks into Summer, another scandal in the reality TV series "Big Brother", you would be amazed at how unsurprised I am. We can now add the rather vile spectacle of one contestant spitting in another contestant's face to the list of other unpleasant incidents that have occurred in that reality TV stronghold (gangland threats/racist remarks/racist bullying sparking an international incident/a fight night that was broken up by security). Predictably, but correctly, the shock spread as far and wide as press articles (in as varied publications as TV Scoop, The Guardian, the Scottish Daily Record, The Times, The People and, last but not least, The Spoof), to blogs by comedian Ricky Gervais, former BB contestant Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace and journalist Grace Dent. Meanwhile, the Australian version is axed and, in India, extremes in reality TV have been reached. I've thankfully avoided "Big Brother" this year and keep up-to-date with it via the occasional read of the aforementioned blogs - particularly Grace Dent's usual annual episodic masterpiece, this time from Channel 4 itself. Although that hasn't stopped me getting swallowed by the granddaddy of reality TV in previous years (specifically, the third and the seventh series, about which more later). It's reached the stage where something else needed to be done with the dead horse other than flogging it. My only other encounter this year with "Big Brother" was an episode of "The Culture Show" which invited previous BB contestants to discuss George Orwell's '1984' novel and apply it to their previous experiences. This was a genuinely interesting concept helped by the chosen ex-housemates being the intelligent, articulate ones (e.g. no Charley Uchea - instead, it featured Derek Laud, Nick Bateman and, not coincidentally getting another mention in this blog entry, Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace). But going by the fact that I preferred watching that episode of "The Culture Show" to the current series of "Big Brother" (ironically, its timeslot clashed with "Big Brother" on Channel 4), I'm beginning to think the whole edifice of reality TV probably needs examined quite seriously. Before reality TV and celebrity culture, now symbiotically linked, eats itself.

Firstly, is reality TV and, specifically, "Big Brother", really that terrible for society? According to this poll, people think it's only slightly better than the bomb and marginally worse than capital punishment. Nice to know we've got this in perspective. Jade Goody and her mother are slightly worse than Hiroshima. Rebecca Loos wanking off a pig on television is only slightly better than the hanging of Ruth Ellis.

My immediate knee-jerk reaction to reality TV before seeing this poll was that it was a dangerous addiction and possibly the antithesis of all that was beautiful - bear in mind I'd lost my life to two Summers that could've been spent frolicking in some sunlit house, full of wine, women and whipped cream (think an early episode of "Skins", but replace the teenagers with thirtysomethings trying not to dance to Duran Duran). Then I remembered one of the best TV programmes of last year was The Verdict - a reality TV series (Michael Portillo's verdict of The Verdict here). One of my must-sees every week is The F Word (and, before that, Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares). You can't really spin it any other way - that's reality TV as well. Frequently informative and often quite funny, but still reality TV. You could hardly call it a documentary.

So, is it "Big Brother" itself that used to be alive and kicking, but is now a shadow of it's former self? It being the granddaddy of them all, it was also the first to feature the concept of 'reality TV as gameshow'. Is this the source of it's current problems now? Certainly, it can't have helped that the basis of gameshows based on 'phone-in' voting is itself under attack. During one period last year, it was becoming almost dangerously trendy for a TV company to be taken to the cleaners by OFCOM for phone vote rigging; Ant & Dec, The X Factor, Richard & Judy, late night ITV quiz shows such as The Mint (although, considering most people are inebriated when they call in that last show, I don't think they needed to con viewers - most of them were conning themselves). Because of the scale of these phone vote scandals, it's been generally forgotten that one of the first major phone vote 'scandals' was "Big Brother" itself - although admittedly not for rigging votes per se, but rather for a 'plot twist'. Channel 4 and Endemol shot themselves in the foot when they were perceived to have changed their own rules by allowing the audience to vote previously ejected contestants back in to the "Big Brother" compound again. This was in the seventh series, but since the halcyon days of the third and fourth series, there were already suspicions that viewers were having less and less control over the 'gameshow' and it was becoming more like a game of masturbatory chess for the producers ('let's make our very own celebrity and mae Celebrity Big Brother series 5'). This was not necessarily true, but viewers perceptions were being changed, as the 'social experiment' level playing field became a producers' idiot celeb maker. What the heck is a social experiment anyway?

As a social psychology experiment, "Big Brother" made a pretty good stab at it in the first couple of series - even with the gameshow element intact. In fact, it even added a generated frisson, as what the viewer perceived from outside the social experiment was vastly different to those within the experiment itself. That first series had the exceedingly charming Nick Bateman perceived as just that, while the outside world had already christened him "Nasty Nick" and this was before his famous 'dirty trick' was discovered. But certainly by the third series, "Big Brother" was no longer the experiment; it was rapidly becoming the poster boy for Heat magazine. Plus, by the seventh series, any social psychology experiment that starts resembling Milgram experiments are in danger of breaking ethics (namely, voting people back in that are threatening other contestants; the equivalent of handing the audience an 'electric shock generator' to the gameshow participants). Yes, I know if I invoke Milgram, I come dangerously close to destroying my criticisms of "Big Brother" via Godwin's Law. Real psychology studies were scrutinised heavily by ethics committees in the 1950s and 1960s and changed a lot as a result. If the law put restrictions on such experiments in the name of science, why is reality television breaking the same rules in the name of entertainment? The objectification of contestants that took hold in later series was something that

I got badly affected by, particularly as I had the personal misfortune of witnessing an old school colleague going in and realised that he wasn't best mentally prepared for it (and this confirmed it). Within 10 minutes, I was screwing my heels into the floor and then had to switch off. A week later, I was scarcely surprised at the headlines claiming he was going to kill himself on the television. Rather alarmingly, a lot of people around me were clamouring for him to do it. Like old Milgram was more or less claiming, humans can quickly objectify people - particularly if they're shouting out in pain for acceptance from the inside of a box. Never let it be forgotten that 'seeking fame' is the 21st century embodiment of that most basic of human emotions; wanting to be accepted.

Okay, the argument goes, it's no longer a social psychology experiment, it's a survival of the fittest. It involves seeing people going through a series of endurance tests to bring out either their best or worst qualities (see previous paragraph about contestants threatening other contestants, plus The Daily Record's appalled reaction to Spitgate). Meanwhile, we can't really vote with any level of confidence, due to previous vote scandals. But, hey, it's something that you can have a flutter on, isn't it? You can lay bets on which housemate will be the next evicted and who is likely to be the winner - that introduces an element of studying the audience psychology, right? The trouble is, this isn't the Grand National, it's not a level playing field. As demonstrated in Charlie Brooker's microcosm of reality TV here, housemates can be rather viciously misrepresented.

Plus, a housemate can be the nicest person possible, such as Aisleyne (a winners campaign for Aisleyne here) and have 'dirty tricks' arbitrarily thrown at them by the producers for the purposes of spicing up televisual entertainment (Machiavellian score revealed, audition tapes shown to the house, throwing psychotic ex-housemates in Milgram-like, etc). Plus, rather alarmingly, even without dirty tricks, there's audience projection to think about as well, helped along by dodgy editing. "I don't like her because she gave someone a nasty look/I don't like her because she looks like she could be bitchy" while the VT editing giving those audience insecurities a nicy, shiny sharp edge. Several contestants have been misrepresented in the past, but Aisleyne is quite a good textbook example of this. I remember spending a Sunday cleaning my flat, with the 'live feed' on in the background,  as my own social experiment. I was curious to see how the 'highlights' show would be edited from the raw footage. What I saw on the feed was Aisleyne patiently being Agony Auntie to five other contestants, both as individuals and while they were doing a group choreography task. At the same time, she did the cooking and fed them a Sunday roast that she cooked herself; a multi-tasking Superwoman, if ever I saw one. I'm not sure what I expected when the 'highlights' show came on, but I certainly didn't foresee them portraying her as an isolated and cantankerous individual, which is indeed what the producers did. I was thankfully not the only one to have picked up on this, as Grace Dent references odd editing in this episode, as well as in another one (here and here). Journalist and cultural commentator, Paul Morley, tackled Endemol producer, Sharon Powers, for blatantly editing Aisleyne to look bad and Sharon didn't defend herself too well - so, from the horse's mouth, it's looking like a level playing field for all involved ain't going to happen.

After all that, what else does "Big Brother" offer to the viewer? A common argument for retaining the series is that it's a 'mirror to society'. This is perhaps the last refuge argument and one which I'm simultaneously sickened by and strangely in agreement with. The last celebrity series infamously started an international incident, when India realised that one of their Bollywood idols was being bullied by four stunning paragons of British bulldog boorishness, with future PM Gordon Brown being dragged into the scandal. Cut through the flash of the headline news and we got various serious discussions on the nature of racism being made in the companion TV shows (Paul Morley articulately described here how the 'mirror to society' is good, even if the means as to how we got there were horrific). Stunningly, a lot of people didn't really understand what racism actually was and that there could be degrees of it; plus, more importantly, there's always a context. Not exactly rocket science, but you'd be surprised at how many of the British public think racism is just about thugs shouting 'black bastard'. From something quite vile, "Big Brother" did surprisingly start becoming a force for good, as it forced a debate on an important societal issue, normally one that is glossed over in most media outlets. I should add that I do think the "granddaddy of reality TV" should continue to exist in some way, as the 'mirror to society' means we can also see genuinely interesting individuals on TV that couldn't be seen in any other format. As well as obviously including Aisleyne, Tourette's sufferer Pete Bennett has to be added to that list (other personal favourites are Dan Bryan, "Science" and Anna Nolan). But perhaps before someone is seriously harmed, a better 'mirror to society' would be the reality TV series I mentioned earlier; "The Verdict". Because most reality TV, and specifically "Big Brother", is not reality. It doesn't approximate anything that we do in our day-to-day lives, so any feeling of a 'soap opera' is fake anyway. Admittedly, "The Verdict" is based upon the human artifice of a courtroom, but it's a bit of artifice that most humans will be involved with in some way and it's a real situation. It's not a TV studio house with artificial tasks. Rather more interesting is that personality, conflict and violent difference of opinion (not to mention good old bitching) will still make an appearance in a reality version of "Twelve Angry Men". The sprinkling of celebrity adds the morphine for the Heat reader. There's a juicy crime in there. Plus, you get to learn something - and not in a patronisingly prescriptive way, because societal taboos get to be discussed naturally as part of a 'criminal case', rather than being forced by a diplomatic incident. Surely that's a better way to engage the viewer with reality TV than morbidly staring at a screen while someone has their face spat into?

Oh, just as an addendum, in case my criticisms on reality TV are perceived as cultural snobbery. One of the earlier forays into reality TV was Channel 4's "After Dark". It only struck me when I watched "The Culture Show" episode with the former "Big Brother" contestants. In the late 1980s, we watched (or a tiny minority of guffawing Guardian readers watched) large personalities being chucked into a room and seeing how their opinions played out. All of the chattering classes giggled at Oliver Reed wrestling a feminist writer to the ground. I rest my case that "reality TV" is for the so-called-proles. We're all guilty in the UK, regardless of colour, class or creed.

1 response

A very interesting read Chris, even if some of the experiments and laws you mentioned were way over my head...I very much agree with the 'flogging a dead horse' comment, but to be honest i've thought that since at least BB3, I just cant see where the 'reality' is in most of the shows that are labelled as such...

I am very much in favour of the 'give them all weapons, last one standing/Battle Royale' school of thought...which says more about me than anything else ;-)