You are live on Channel 4, please do not swear. Wank! Unless you have tourettes. Shilpa poppadom, Shilpa chappawala! Fuck it, who cares, no one’s watching anyway.
Reports of Big Brother’s demise are not greatly exaggerated, though for a long time, they’ve been greatly anticipated. This week, programme makers, in one last desperate bid for viewers, told housemates to ‘do something exciting’, and then stripped them of their prize money when they apparently did something too exciting. The story barely made a ripple in the real world. One might say the big news from the house this week is that the show is finally, ten years too late, being dropped by Channel 4. But does anyone really care anymore?
You may be beginning to get the impression that I dislike Big Brother. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I hate it. In the words of Agent Smith from The Matrix: “I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.”
My beef with BB is not that I have to watch it. Nor, as a point of anti-snobbery, do I object to the mindless teeming zombies of the lower orders who choose to watch a parade of freaks who think East Angular is a foreign country and can barely spell their own name because it makes them feel vaguely clever and sane by comparison. People enjoy what they enjoy. It’s not for me to judge or condemn what a person chooses to watch, anymore than I should criticise what they consider to be art, what plays they like seeing or what music they choose to listen to, unless they like Leonard Cohen, in which case they should probably be shot. No, my problem with Big Brother is what it has done to the medium of television. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing.
What is laughably called ‘reality’ television is relatively cheap to produce. It doesn’t require scripts or scriptwriters, acting or actors, directors or direction, special effects or complex editing. Just stick a few ‘normal’ people in a room with cameras, compile the vaguely interesting things they do, add some bird sounds and you’ve got an hour of television. Most entertainment, from the mysterious jungles of Lost’s $14m pilot episode to sixty minutes in the jungle with Ant & Dec, is a commercial enterprise adhering to the principles of the market. Even the most ardent anti-capitalists have come to accept that. But reality TV is the lazy way to make money. It’s storytelling without a storyteller. The one real story to come out of Big Brother was Jade. And even the tragic soap-opera of her life and death was tedious and over-reported, the coverage of her illness, whilst suitably sympathetic, far outweighing her importance in relation to everything else going on in the world. If a well-scripted, well-acted, well-directed drama series can be compared to a band’s first album, their magnum opus, the culmination of a life’s work; then shows like Big Brother are the greatest hits, the cash-in, thrown together with little need for thought or effort to make the maximum money with the minimum creativity.
The worst part of it is that it does all this under the flimsy pretence that, like some kind of modern day Stanford Prison Experiment, it has something important to say about society or human nature. What this amounts to is a freakshow. And whilst there have been some genuinely important issues that Big Brother has, in its own mind-numbing fashion, brought to the nation’s attention – Pete’s tourettes, Nadia’s transexuality, Jade Goody’s casual racism and the ephemeral nature of celebrity – most of it amounts to little more than finding the campest, most flamboyant person out there so people can point at him and go, ‘look at him, he’s gay.’
Reality TV was, arguably, the defining genre of the soulless noughties. At one point, before the wild success of resurgent big-budget, thickly-plotted, highly-serialised drama series like Lost, Prison Break and 24, some critics were even proclaiming the death of scripted television at the hands of the new kid on the block. A decade ago, Big Brother might have seemed original, even creative, meeting Channel 4’s remit to ‘demonstrate innovation, experiment and creativity in the form and content of programmes.’ But yesterday’s news is today’s chip paper. And now, as viewers desert the show like Labour party supporters, it’s clear that it has had its time in the sun.
Big Brother’s model, and the plethora of ugly cousins it has spawned, is a blight on good television. With its axing, Channel 4 has a prime time vacancy for the edgy and the innovative and an extra £50m to fill it. Let us hope that this marks the end of reality television as we know it. The days of watching freaks for fun should have ended long ago.