There’s more to the demise of Big Brother than meets the eye. It’s a final and emphatic rejection by Australian TV viewers, especially younger ones, of a nasty, confrontational approach to culture.

Ten’s core audiences, the 16 to 39 and 18 to 49 viewers have said ‘not interested any more’. It’s a message for all Australian TV. The positive, affirming debut of So You Think You Can Dance Australia started in spectacular fashion in February and finished its first season strongly.

And an early warning shot was fired by the audience back in 2005 when the confrontational X Factor bombed here and bombed badly for Ten. It remains successful overseas but could never get going here in a miserable season for the Network.

Ten’s executive chairman Nick Falloon sprung a surprise earnings downgrade for the 2008 year with an expected drop in earnings and profits in the 4th quarter. The share price tanked as a result, only to be arrested when it pops out an equally surprising buyback of up to 10% of its shares, that won’t be accepted by major shareholders, CanWest and Win Corporation (Bruce Gordon).

Then the Network reveals plans to end Big Brother when the program finishes next Monday night, July 21. 

The decision was being made while the Network was proclaiming the success of bringing Pamela Anderson to Australia to try and tart up the ratings, which she did for just one night. The audience of more than 1.4 million was the program’s best this year, the next night it struggled to hold the 1 million mark. She was everything that was wrong with the program, from Day one, and the tabloid culture that marked her brief time here.

So why did Ten go with Pammie if closing BB had become an option, as it seems to have been at Ten for the best part of the past month?

It’s clear that Ten Network had the Big Brother closure planned: the producers were told, the cast were told yesterday, officially, and  the full page ads in New Ltd tabloids this morning contained carefully written ad copy, selling the BB closure as a positive for Ten.

But BB has been dead for more than two years. A burial a year ago would have surprised some in TV, but the ratings slide in 2007 made it clear it could probably have lasted one more year: 2008. Ten cut costs to make it profitable, but the audience responded by turning off while programs like Domestic Blitz on Nine at 6.30 pm Sundays, Australia’s Got Talent on Seven Tuesdays at 7.30 pm and to a lesser extent, The Battle of The Choirs also on Seven on Sundays at 7.30 pm, gained interest from viewers.

We should look at the demise of BB as a positive story, not a cynical ratings ploy from Ten to boost audiences this week and next.

It might be in its eighth year, which is a long time in TV, but it was an imported nasty franchise from Bad Lad Britain where class still resigns and programs like Ladette to Lady, Bad Lads Army and the various Gordon Ramsay programs with their ‘F’ words are considered entertainment of the most successful kind. Britain is also where some the bleakest, goriest and most depressing dramas (especially crime thrillers) are coming from. It’s a tabloid driven culture (thanks Rupert) where young men and women drink to excess and behave appallingly to get themselves noticed.

That culture still dominates British life and media: especially TV. Anyone seen I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here? The most successful TV ideas in this country have been home grown and not nasty. Satire works well here, as does irony. Frontline and all the programs from Working Dog in Melbourne (Thank God You’re Here) Kath & Kim; The Gruen Transfer on ABC TV. Even the dark and rotten Underbelly was a class above any crime-related drama we have seen from overseas. (Its strength was that it was based on fact, not a story editor’s imagination). The Wiggles, Hi-Five and Play School are standout for children and except for Sesame Street, are head and shoulders above anything else.

Ten now has between $25 million and $30 million to spend on 120 hours of TV to replace BB next year. That in turn makes it imperative that Australian Idol works for Ten this year. With two sponsors not renewing this year, it’s going to be a big test for Ten and its management.

CanWest, which controls Ten, continues to lose money in Canada, and should have taken what was on offer last year when it was trying to sell. It was too greedy and the heady days of the network being worth $2.5 billion won’t return for some time.

That somehow sums up the BB culture: greedy, self interest. CanWest never learned that lesson and has paid a substantial cost which continues in a weak Ten share price.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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