Big Brother has often played an important role in challenging stereotypes—the most recent series was no exceptionby Peter Bazalgette / March 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
The programme generated more than 400m hits on Big Brother websites, 2.5m video downloads, a record 50,000 complaints to the television regulator, a private audience for the winner with the current prime minister, a plea to vote for the winner from the next prime minister, a national debate on racism and a rolling story across the world. Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother seems to be living in the “interesting times” referred to in the sinister Chinese curse. Is Jade Goody a racist? Was the series “racism as entertainment”? Do 50,000 complaints mean such a show should be taken off air? No to all of those. But before I explore this rather surreal terrain, let me remind you how the recent furore was, in a sense, business as usual for the most celebrated and reviled reality show on television.
There is one thing that sets Big Brother apart from most other shows in the world: the influential and vocal minority who want it stopped. When it was first produced in Germany in 2000, an elderly regulator tried to stifle it before it was aired. He argued it infringed the individual’s basic right to privacy and compared it to the Nazi era. He failed. In Mexico, a small group of Catholic patriarchs own most of the country’s major companies. They tried to strangle Big Brother by withdrawing all advertising from the programme. They failed too. Last summer, the Australian prime minister told Network Ten it should decommission the series. But it declined. In Malawi, the parliament demanded the state broadcaster take it off air. The cowed management there complied. But the courts declared the politicians ultra vires. In Bahrain, the Big Brother house was carefully constructed with separate boys’ and girls’ sections and a prayer room. But angry Muslim clerics demonstrated outside the house. They succeeded this time—the series ended after eight days.