So, after 11 years and over 1000 days on air, the Big Brother house has finally shut its doors for good. The house is empty, the cameras have been put away and the production team has gone home. What however, will be the legacy of the BB phenomenon?
It was one of the most popular television programmes ever broadcast; at its peak it enjoyed an audience of 10 million. Love it or hate it, everyone, it seemed, had an opinion about it. For every enthusiastic BB addict, there was an equally virulent critic. It polarised the nation, evidence of its strangely profound influence.
It was not just a game show, but a live soap opera, social experiment, comedy, tragedy, pantomime, even a tale of morality. What started as naked entertainment ended as a showpiece of popular culture, helping to define a generation – our generation. Big Brother may be dead (R.I.P) but its effects live on. The show began with the goal of reflecting reality, but evolved into a force that actually helped shape it.
Since the show first aired in July 2000, there has been a fast-moving and fundamental shift in the public’s attitudes toward privacy. The first series was a huge novelty: the idea of people allowing themselves to be filmed for 24 hours a day seemed strange, almost crazy. Today this notion is banal, a standard ploy of television output, with an onward march of ever-cheaper ‘reality’ programmes. The list seems endless: Strictly Come Dancing, I’m a Celebrity, The X-Factor, Wife Swap, Come Dine With Me and The Hills, to name but a few. Television has changed, so too the world. Exhibitionism has become a lifestyle choice, not just
for professional performers but anyone who can get a piece of the action. ‘No shame, only fame’ is the rule.
This perpetual parade of intimacy is becoming universal. Just about everyone, it seems, is a Facebook addict. Users, myself included, diligently update their details, ever keen to reveal tiny developments from behind the keyhole. Micro-blogging has given rise to a generation that believes everything it does is worthy of round-the-clock exposure. “Breaking news: this toothpaste it too minty’. “Newsflash: I’m having dinner”.
Why do we think that anyone should care? Are people’s lives so mundane that they feel compelled to compensate by revealing every half-thought and mini-movement to the rest of us? It seems that Descartes’ philosophical motto “I think, therefore I am”, has been re-scripted as “I am seen and heard, therefore I am… important”. Notoriety is the spur. Become a shameless exhibitionist and you can have more fun, more friends and a more exciting life. Privacy, it would appear, is no longer worthwhile. A person’s existence is defined by the approval, envy and disgust of others. Only non-entities are losers. I’m pretty sure my grandparents didn’t have the same self-conscious urge to strip bare every half-thought for a real or imagined audience. They were too busy living their lives.
A society dominated by electronic visual media and official snooping was predicted not only in Orwell’s masterpiece ‘1984’, but also in Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’. This kind of society looks more like our reality every day. BB can readily be compared to ‘The Family’ in Bradbury’s novel, a distracting, pacifying visual drug, watched on large TV screens the size of walls. Bradbury’s viewers were offered the illusion of interacting with their soap, like the thousands that ‘get involved’ via telephone voting in BB, The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent.
The notion of round-the-clock surveillance and the removal of privacy was once feared, and rightly so. Orwell and others warned us of the consequences. Yet, perversely, it has become an intrusion we seem to crave.
The end of Big Brother? Not really. We’re all in the house now.