Reality show still a hit despite controversy

The UK's Celebrity Big Brother was dropped by its old broadcaster for being outdated and exploitative. Now it's back on a new channel – and millions of Britons are tuning in.

'Housemates pass ice cubes to each other – with their mouths!' was the news yesterday. The towering Jedward hairdos were the hot topic the day before. Before that, it was a photographer's plastic muscles that were the centre of attention. The UK now buzzes with gossip: an aging TV star hopped into bed with a male model; an Essex beautician stuck sequins to a middle-aged gypsy; a chubby paparazzo drank his own sweat.

Why are such topics suddenly in the public eye? Because Celebrity Big Brother is back for its eighth run on primetime British television. Ten years after it first appeared, this celebrity variant of the famous reality show remains hugely popular – more than 5 million people tuned in to watch the series launch.

The format has hardly changed in its decade on air. A group of contestants – either ordinary members of the public or 'celebrities' – enter the 'Big Brother House' for a set period of time. While there, they are watched 24 hours a day by hidden TV cameras. Every word they say is recorded. Every detail of their lives can be broadcast to millions of viewers. As the weeks pass, housemates are gradually evicted from the show until finally only one remains to be crowned the winner.

When the programme first aired in 2000, it was meant to be more than just light entertainment. No one really knew how the contestants would behave, or how they would react to being constantly watched and judged.

It felt like a social experiment, which could expand our understanding of human nature.

These days, however, few regard the programme as being more than trash TV. Housemates are chosen for their 'outrageous' personalities. Celebrity contestants are less famous each year. A show that once gave interesting insights into the behaviour of ordinary people is now, say many commentators, a 'freakshow', where 'Z-list celebrities' and 'specimens of damaged humanity' are mocked and exploited for the entertainment of the public.

Harmless fun?

So should Big Brother still be on Britain's TVs? It's certainly hard to argue that it has any great social value. It doesn't expand horizons, or spread knowledge and understanding. It doesn't promote culture or the arts. The programme, say critics, is demeaning not just to its contestants but also to its audience.

But does a TV show really need a higher purpose? In the early days, said one member of the production team, Big Brother 'always had to mean something'. Now 'it can be just pure entertainment… People are enjoying it a lot more.' The contestants get their 15 minutes of fame. The audience is entertained. Surely, say the programme's defenders, there's nothing wrong with that.

You Decide

  1. Is Big Brother good TV or evil exploitation?
  2. Should entertainment be good for us or can it just be pure fun?

Activities

  1. In a group, devise and perform an imaginary incident in the Big Brother house.
  2. Do some further research on 'Reithianism' and public service broadcasting. How important do you think it is?

Some People Say...

“Big Brother is sick – it should be banned.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why would Big Brother be seen as 'demeaning'?
The problem people have with the show is that it encourages people to do humiliating things in order to achieve fame. Viewers in 2007 were shocked to see a British MP dressed in a red catsuit and crawling around the floor. Another show in 2006 saw a middle-aged mum lapdancing for a teenage schoolboy.
I can see how that might be a problem!
It was a problem for Channel 4, who originally broadcast the show – they gave up on Big Brother in 2010. It now runs on Channel 5, which has a much more limited public service mission.
Public service?
Public Service Broadcasting was defined by John Reith, the first director general of the BBC whose mission was to 'educate, inform and entertain'. Big Brother doesn't exactly fit the bill.

Word Watch

Jedward
Identical twins John and Edward Grimes, better known as Jedward, shot to fame on the UK's X Factor competition in 2009, when they attracted attention for their wobbly singing, bad dancing and remarkable hair styles.
Paparazzo
Paparazzo was a character in the 1960 film classic, La Dolce Vita, a press photographer who would stop at nothing to get photographs of famous people. The word is now most often used in the plural form 'paparazzi', to describe photographers who make a living from photographing celebrities as they go about their day-to-day lives.
Primetime
Primetime, or peak time, is the period during the day when the largest number of people are watching television. In the UK, it runs from 6pm to 10.30pm.
Demeaning
Harmful to a person's dignity or self respect.
15 minutes of fame
short-lived celebrity; a brief period in the public eye. The expression comes from the American artist Andy Warhol, who said: 'in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes'.

Subjects

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