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Why we watch Big Brother

Andy Newman

Big Brother eyeIt is a truism that the numbers voting for Big Brother rivals the numbers who participate in elections. Are these facts connected? Arguably the phenomenon of reality TV, particularly Big Brother, is a reflection of New Labour (post-modernist?) assumptions about the individual only existing for society as a consumer and the collapse of ideology. As post-modernism rejects any "meta-narrative" that suggest ideas are in part derived from social forces acting upon individuals then the ideas that are available to "ordinary people" will be much more impoverished than the ideas available to the intelligentsia. So they believe that "ordinary people" are only interested in what Channel 5 used to describe as the three Fs: football, films and fucking.

However, because this assumption is wrong - (in fact no people are "ordinary", and the daily experience of work and social injustice throws up all sorts of ideas, for example the popular rejection of the war in Iraq, or distrust of mobile phone masts) - then the BB makers seek out individuals who conform to their own dull prejudice of ordinary people - contestants who are dysfunctional, egotistical and shallow, and mainly too young to know any better. The demographic described by advertisers as "the sad, the mad and the bad". In particular the contestants are people who have no ideas - and are therefore far from ordinary. So "reality" TV only exists on the predicate that the people it films are individuals lost to reality. It is noticeable that they rarely discuss their work, or where they live, or any social relations except very alienated interactions between semi-strangers, such as abstract discussions about flirting or casual sex.

This is parallel with New Labour's assumption that everyone is "apathetic" or bereft of ideas - when in fact most people are far from apathetic about the problems afflicting them but are disenfranchised through the well founded experience that political activity (including voting) will make no change to their circumstances. Ironically then the electoral process focuses on those who are genuinely apathetic - the swing voters who will cast a vote but are too gormless to have decided whether or not they are Tory or Labour. So, politics becomes advertising of brands for the people who really cannot tell the difference. (Or as Jeremy Hardy suggested - an advertising campaign for a product called "of course it's not fucking butter - just grow up"). It is not the "ordinary people" who have no ideas; it is the political parties who have abandoned ideology in pursuit of the feckless swing voter. With the ego of the advertising executive, the Labour politicians project their own retreat from ideology onto the voters they take for granted, and by reducing the election to "nine out of ten cat owners say their cats prefer a Labour government" they depress any interest in the electoral process, as they make it deliberately irrelevant to the day to day lives of working people. They complain about low voter turnout, despite the fact that when the vast majority of the population opposed war on Iraq their elected representatives voted for war anyway - hardly the best advert for the relevance of democracy.

What is more, because the individuals in the BB house are further decontextualised from any genuine social situation then BB is incapable of being subverted - despite attempts by ex-AWL member Kat, and Germaine Greer. It's only a game show, and the contestants who keep that in mind are more realistic than those who seek to critique it from within. The degree of decontexualisation is so severe that the programme makers have no qualms about selecting a black African woman, Makosi Musambasi,  as their "unlucky" 13th contestant who will be subjected to ritual humiliation throughout the series, as the real life issues of racism, sexism and colonialism do not exist in their "reality".

So why do people watch it? Well it is interesting that when they show the highlights as contestants leave the house they rarely include footage of the contrived games and events choreographed by BB, but the highlights - which viewers want to see - are the unscripted and therefore unpredictable moments. In a world where social interaction  is increasingly packaged and sold as a commodity with a predictable outcome, then the rogue element of human initiative is still unusual on TV. Even though the BB inhabitants are usually devoid of talent or creativity, their interactions are still more real than the scripted patter and canned laughter of conventional TV.

Turning on TV late at night it is quite possible that a live chat between three semi-drunk Big Brother hopefuls will be more entertaining to watch than pro-celebrity darts, a disappointingly un-titillating quasi-documentary about the porn industry, a made for TV movie starring Victoria Principal, or Jimmy Carr listing the top 100 gastric illnesses.



May 2005


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