I don’t even mind the backpatting Big-Brother-was-just-great-for-my-career flannel – it at least has the merit of honesty.
Nor is it quite hyperbole to claim that
Big Brother has been the most influential show of the modern era. Even it’s most vociferous critics would admit that. Quite simply, it revolutionised TV. It pioneered new technologies and fundamentally altered how viewers watched television.
This is not at all far off the mark. And that’s the problem.
The ‘revolution’ Big Brother offered – if it offered anything of the sort – was not on what we, on this side of the screen were doing. It was
what people like Bellamy were doing on the other side. Big Brother was the first successful, popular example of innovations in editing technology – fast digital editing – changing the kind of television programmes we could watch.
The economics of the show only work once digital editing exists. Hours and hours, days and days, of raw, unedited footage can be rapidly spliced into a convincing storyline: a process either slow, or horribly expensive (or both) with traditional analogue editors, but within the bounds of possibility once footage can be digitised and rapidly chopped up, reassembled, and slotted neatly into place. It’s a classic example of a capital-intensive investment pushing out labour, in fact; you move from human camera operators and skilled editors into glorified CCTV and a fast hard-drive.
The participants cost next to nothing. The sets are cheap. You save on expensive labour. And with so much raw footage to choose from, you have an extraordinary amount of control over the final output. Charlie Brooker explained the whole process, quite brilliantly, here.
But this means that Bellamy’s claims about Big Brother offering ‘a remarkable insight into the values and behaviour of the noughties generation’ are seriously disingenuous. We weren’t privileged to witness, like visitors at the safari park, strange creatures in their natural habitat; we weren’t even watching people, thrown into a weird situation and responding to it. We were looking at something that was, from top to bottom, largely constructed elsewhere, off-screen, away from whatever we were viewing.
Big Brother showed us a remarkable insight into what Endemol, Channel 4, and their advertisers and sponsors think we wanted to see of the ‘values and behaviour’ of the ‘noughties generation’. They don’t really like us very much.
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