People-watching is always fun, but now "reality television", in the guise of Big Brother, takes it one step further, satisfying our deepest voyeuristic desireswhile giving us a chance to influence the outcome. We are part of the plot!
Big Brother is watching you!" said the posters and signs that lined the streets of George Orwell's 1984. Thankfully, the age of the all-seeing dictator seems to have passed. These days, it would be more appropriate to say, "You are watching Big Brother!" thanks to the popularity of a new
programme currently dominating the television schedules of most of Europe. It's the new sensation, and Big Brother has come to a television set near you.
Originating in the Netherlands, where the final show was watched by an audience of 15 million, Big Brother has since captured the imagination of television addicts in Germany, Britain and the USA. Now, Polish commercial television channel TVN has prepared a Polish version as well. Set in a house somewhere near Warsaw - the exact location is a secret - carefully selected men and women will live under the gaze of television cameras so that we can be entertained. Big Brother is a game show with a difference. Usually this type of show, such as the Polish The Great Game (Wielka Gra), has contestants who compete with each other until one emerges as the winner. It's the same with Big Brother. Except that in this programme around ten complete strangers are forced to live together for a period of time, during which every action and every conversation that they make is video-filmed by the programme makers. Then the "highlights" are shown in a nightly programme. A twenty-four-hour live webcam can also be viewed via the Big Brother web page. Periodically, the audience - and this is what makes the programme different from other game shows - votes over the Internet on whom they think should be eliminated from the house. At the end of the television series, the one contestant who is left is the winner.
Mr Nice and Mr Nasty
In the British version, the winner of the first series, screened in autumn 2000, was Craig, who won ł75,000. But more important than the money, the winner of Big Brother goes on to become a media celebrity. The newspapers want his photograph; television and radio talk shows want his story.
But it isn't just the winner that gets lots of attention from the media. Nick Bateman was one of the contestants that got thrown out of the house by the British audience. He was given the nickname of "Nasty Nick" due to him being extremely nasty and scheming; or so it was claimed by the British tabloid press. He has since become even more interesting to the British media than Craig! Articles by ex-lovers of Nasty Nick have appeared in the tabloids claiming that he was indeed a beast and is quite probably the nastiest person who has ever walked the Earth! He is also now making a lot of money appearing on other television shows and is, in fact, going to host his very own rather nasty game show!
The aim of this sort of programme is to make ordinary people react in extraordinary situations. Cameras are everywhere in the house. Every action of the contestants is filmed. The Italian version of Big Brother even had a camera in the toilet! The Italian version was also the first to show a female and male contestant being friendly in an, er, intimate way, live on television! The unblinking eye of the camera is everywhere.
Big Brother is just one of many programmes that have come to be known as "reality TV". The subject matter is real people doing real things. And audiences just can't get enough of it. In the US, Big Brother is not as popular as Survivor, the programme that puts 16 people on a desert island and leaves them to feed and look after themselves. The one who remains at the end gets the treasure: a million dollars!
But even more extreme versions of reality television are being planned. The Runner, produced by Good Will Hunting stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, has cameras following contestants from one side of the United States to the other. Another team of competitors trying to catch them. Even stranger is Chains of Love. In this programme, to be shown prime time on NBC in America, a woman will be literally chained to four men. Over the next few weeks she will eliminate each of the men until she is left with her ideal date!
Ad hoc or timed to shock?
It is hard, say critics of these programmes, to draw the line between what is real and what is not. Is Nasty Nick really that nasty? Or was it all for the camera? Karen, one of the contestants in the American Big Brother, publicly announced live on television that she did not love her husband anymore and wanted a divorce! The television network that broadcast the programme was immediately accused of creating entertainment out of personal misery, and for not considering the effect that her announcement would have on her children. Reality TV mixes real lives with entertainment and blurs the lines between what the programme makers create and what is truly real.
The Polish version, which begins broadcasting in March, is sure to be a hit. The trends in Polish TV are the same as everywhere else. Reality TV has completely changed the look of American television schedules, and Polish television is going the same way, too. Already the Polish Survivor has been broadcast here, and already Polish couch potatoes have decided they like it. Before the age of reality television, TV companies believed that drama was a good way to win audiences. Now what we seem to want is not reality, or fiction, but something in-between. Are you one of many who will be watching Big Brother?
by Peter Gentle