Channel 5 has always struggled to create an identity for itself. Its early years were dominated by cheap imports from the US and Australia, alongside entertainment of the more adult variety. In later years the channel shook off its sleazy image and began to rely heavily on the likes of CSI and NCIS in order to build an audience. That was until Northern & Shell came along with a bag full of poverty porn, cheap fly-on-the-wall documentaries and Big Brother.
Ah yes, Big Brother. The elephant in the room. A programme that Channel 5’s director of programming Ben Frow has openly stated that he would rather not have on the channel. Yet it still draws a healthy audience throughout each run. That audience equates to larger advertising revenues, and bags Channel 5 some much needed exposure in what has become a highly competitive market.
The problem is though that, under Channel 5, Big Brother had become so far removed from what made it so great in the first place that the huge audience that it once commanded have voted with their remotes and switched off. Long gone were the chickens, vegetable garden and lack of outside contact and in came a never-ending supply of booze, parties and access to viewers’ tweets – all of which almost guaranteed to cause an argument amongst the housemates. No longer were a group put into the house and left to get on with it while we observed and analysed their actions. Now each and every situation was being deliberately manipulated by the production team in order to engineer the kind of drama that they thought we all wanted.
The whole concept of Big Brother was that it was a social experiment. It is supposed to be reality. Not a scripted drama. In fact, when it’s a the top of its game and not trying to emulate its more modern counterparts, Big Brother is still must-see television and delivers the kind of viewing experience that just isn’t available elsewhere.
Channel 5 just don’t seem to realise what a missed opportunity they have on their books though. Where is the live feed for example? The ability to view the housemates’ actions 24 hours a day was one of the things that made the show so unique and exciting in the early years. I can distinctly remember watching the infamous ‘Fight Night’ of series five kicking off on the live feed back in the day and being absolutely gripped. Even the more mundane moments of the day can make for fascinating viewing - how many of us once sat and watched the housemates sunbathing or cooking or cleaning their teeth? That element of Big Brother has been sadly lost since the show moved to Channel 5 save for a few precious moments per series, usually after midnight. Yet think how the ability to view the house 24 hours a day would generate awareness and interest in the show again. Especially with the ability to share those moments via social media platforms like Twitter.
There is hope however for Big Brother’s future. Despite what some of the tabloid newspapers would have us believe the show hasn’t yet fallen under the axe. And the new production team led by series seven veteran Paul Osbourne are slowly trying to untangle the mess that has been made of the programme over the past few years. Viewers that stuck with the January ‘year of the woman’ series would have noticed that the show started to switch back towards the original social experiment concept with each episode concentrating more on the different conversations and relationships between the housemates than the endless rows and showmances of previous years. Indeed, the series won much deserved praise from viewers for focusing heavily on gender issues throughout its run, with eventual winner Courtney Act making the biggest impact, as well as one of the most memorable entrances in the shows history.
The current ‘eye of the storm’ series is building upon those foundations that were set in January with a real return to form. Despite the whole Stormy Daniels debacle, this particular run of Big Brother has (so far) been gripping viewing. It helps of course that they’ve managed to get the casting pretty much spot on with the right balance of age ranges and personalities. Each and every one of them has a colourful history and a story to tell and it’s fascinating to hear about them in their own words. Nick Leeson talking about his arrest for example or Kirstie Alley discussing her issues with her weight make for some truly interesting and unique television. Big Brother at its best challenges our way of thinking. It makes us see people in a new light. It educates us as well as entertaining us. It’s not just characters from the latest MTV show getting drunk and naked and arguing. Not any more.
Big Brother is as relevant today as it was back in 2000. But perhaps now it needs to shift its focus to a different audience. Rather than trying to chase the younger viewers that it has since its arrival on Channel 5, it needs to start trying to appeal to the audience that it had back at its inception. The audience that were young then, but have now grown up and moved on because of the tacky reputation that the show had acquired. Concentrate on those fascinating conversations. Let any drama unfold naturally without manipulation. Keep focusing on the social experiment and not the showmances.
Do all of that, promote it well and the audience will slowly but surely return to the Big Brother fold.