The harsh reality
The demise of Big Brother has gained a large amount of coverage in the press. Channel 4's decision not to renew the show's run beyond its 11th series in 2010 seems to have been portrayed in various media outlets as a victory for quality programming and the death knell for the so-called reality TV genre.
In fact, Channel 4 haven't 'axed' Big Brother as such. They've just decided that when the current contract runs out, they won't be renewing. The lights in the Big Brother house won't be dimming for the final time until this time next year, so it's hardly the whipping off the airwaves that some would have you believe. The reality genre has mutated many times during its lifespan. From a gentle start filming families and workers going about their daily business, to the artificial environments created by shows like Big Brother and I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here, the genre has made heroes and villains out of a cast of thousands, has been going strong for the last 40 years or so and shows no signs of stopping, despite Big Brother preparing for its swansong.
I never really saw Big Brother as a reality show. Despite its early insistences that it was a social experiment, it was essentially a gameshow, at best a personality contest. The first two series did have a factor of the unknown about them: in the first, nobody thought so many people would be watching; in the second, nobody truly thought anyone would bother to watch it again. As production teams, sponsors and TV executives got wise to the revenue-generating power and PR potential of the show, the format was tweaked, contestants manipulated and the editing process polished to sway the viewing public. The role of playing God moved after the fourth series from the viewers themselves to the producers.
Even people who don't watch Big Brother have something to say about. Remember John Humphrys's frankly embarrassing tirade against Big Brother and the reality genre in the McTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival back in 2004? Denouncing the show as damaging, he was forced to admit a little later that he was not a regular viewer of the show. Most of the show's detractors don't actually watch it and the loudest calls for its removal from the airwaves are often from those who are already doing something better with their time when it's on. I stopped watching it three series' ago when the casting stopped being to my personal taste. I've seen three episodes of the current run and and am a little glad I haven't tuned into the whole thing, although I still found myself intrigued by the goings-on. It's quite an investment of time and energy and I don't think it's worth it to me any more.
That said, it does have an audience and is a massive hit with the 18-22 age group. As new generations grow up with Big Brother, there's still mileage in the brand and the potential cast is getting bigger and bigger. That Channel 4 has decided to have a creative rethink and focus on making dramas that the 18-22 year-olds currently glued to that slot will avoid is a brave move. Much braver than deciding not to renew a show that still generates revenue. Only time will tell if they've made the right decision. Five and Sky have so far denied that they have any interest in producing the show, but I doubt we've seen the last of Big Brother. Someone, somewhere is watching and waiting and when the time is right, he'll be back.