ITV2 has announced the return of Big Brother to the UK with a promo trailer during this year’s Love Island final. Big Brother’s successful format of putting a group of housemates together in a controlled environment as an “experiment” to observe their behavior has proved entertainment gold with international iterations, spin-offs and many imitations across the world.
To many, the show’s return, after its 18-year stint on Channel 4 and then Channel 5 will come as something of a surprise, given the way the viewing figures had gradually fallen. For others, however, it remained a cult hit at the center of contemporary British popular culture.
But reality television is not the same as it was when Big Brother launched in 2000. The show will return to a changed set of circumstances and expectations. For instance, Big Brother’s explosive drama was roundly criticized for sometimes being fueled by alcohol, a practice which is no longer condoned.
Reality television and social media
Love Island has clearly taken inspiration from Big Brother as it also relies on observing the behavior of participants in a house (known in Love Island as the villa) over eight weeks. The difference is they’re supposed to “couple up”. The show has developed a successful branding strategy with intricate social media tie-ins – for instance, numerous sponsorship deals with clothing and music brands, as well as gaming apps, merchandising and multiple branded social media accounts. All of this has upped the stakes of the amount of publicity and extra commercial value generated around a show – dwarfing the frenzy the tabloids made of Big Brother.
This year’s Love Island winner, Ekin-Su, came out of the villa with more than a million Instagram followers and positioned for numerous lucrative branding deals.)
But also since that initial “psychological experiment”, the nature of reality contestants has changed. They are now media-savvy people who’ve grown up online and in a world saturated with reality TV. They see shows such as Love Island as part of a social media landscape, in which performing and branding their personalities is a normal way of life that might just lead to a lucrative career.
While of course not all reality shows offer such a platform, Big Brother and Love Island have been some of the most successful for offering a springboard into other media careers – sometimes for those who might have had no other way in, given the lack of diversity in the media industry.
There is therefore no shortage of people queuing up to get a spot, despite the escalating risks of trolling and social media bile that seems to be the price paid for quickly-won fame.
How audiences interact with a show has also changed. They can now participate in the experience, not only through voting, but in the sharing of opinions, often in real time and directly with participants, as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook extend the shows’ visibility.
Looking back to older series of Big Brother, I wonder what kind of death-threats “Nasty Nick” would have received for breaking the rules of the show after he was caught writing down housemates names to influence the nominations for eviction. He left the house to a booing crowd and a baying press like a pantomime villain, but that would have been multiplied and magnified across social media and into his DMs (direct messages) today.
Duty of care
For more than 20 years, largely unpaid contestants have provided content for television without much oversight or concern for their wellbeing. Think of Shahbaz Chauhdry who in series seven of Big Brother showed obvious signs of worsening mental health and ended up leaving on day six after threatening to commit suicide.
Now producers need to think more closely about their duty of care to contestants in a landscape that is much more sensitive to the risks of taking part in reality television, particularly those associated with mental health.
Caring for contestants has become a growing issue as several reality stars have committed suicide post filming. A 2019 government public inquiry and a period of consultation by Ofcom, the UK broadcasting regulator, have led to changes in the broadcasting code, which came into effect in April 2021.
Now broadcasters must protect the welfare of participants and ensure that audiences don’t watch harmful or offensive things happening on screen. However, as Ofcom is a post-broadcast regulator it cannot interfere with the direction of creative content. It can only intervene once something has already aired.
There might be a feeling that the changes to the code and the more serious intent of the broadcasters are enough. However, before the end of Love Island 2022 Ofcom received more than 5,000 complaints about issues ranging from misogyny to bullying. It remains to be seen whether any of these complaints can be upheld under the new duty of care regulations.
The code also struggles to take account of the complexity of caring for such contestants. How long after a show should after-care go on and what should it look like? This is a difficult question, especially considering that many reality TV contributors sign over the rights to their performances “in perpetuity”. You may not feel the same about something you did at 19 being replayed as TV gold or re-circulating as a meme when you are 45, for instance.
I presume that ITV has taken this leap because of the success of Love Island and the continued audience appetite for shows that manipulate the experience of contestants in confined conditions. For a TV show that thrived on chaos and emotion, what would a caring revision of Big Brother even look like? I guess we will see when it airs next year.