Big Brother departed our screens last night in a blaze of muted glory.

Around 1.4 million viewers tuned in for the announcement of the winner, known as grandmother Terri. Around 1.2 million watched the rest of the night’s broadcast. And now it has gone.

That the program’s producers and the Ten network took eight years to discover older people as potential inmates, sorry, housemates, says a lot about how the program ossified.

From the charming and attractive Sara-Marie to Reggie Bird, the program degenerated into a poor example of Bogan TV.

Whether it was the rigid format requirements of the show’s owners, the Endemol group of Holland, or the desire by Ten to appeal to a younger demographic group, Big Brother never moved out of its training pants.

It never “regionalised”, or became Australian, just as other versions around the world remain identifiably Big Brother. It’s part of a “McDonaldisation” of the format as Endemol apparently wanted the program to look the same the world over.

Families and old people were basically ignored by Big Brother (up until this year) while Ten tried to show it was hip by introducing gays (and young women with boob jobs) into the house in recent years.

That wasn’t about diversity, of course, but cranking up the controversymeter to get the older, more conservative viewers and Christian lobby groups up in arms.

BB’s worst moment wasn’t even broadcast at first: it was on the internet when the infamous “turkey slapping” incident happened in 2006: it was viewed initially by people over the age of 18 who had paid by credit card (the only way to pay) to get the net feed from the BB house.

The incident was then broadcast on Seven’s Today Tonight and on Nine’s A Current Affair, in the name of “news and fair comment”, to a much broader audience.

Nine and Seven had much to gain from picking up the story: 1) generate more ratings for themselves and 2) make trouble for Ten and undermine that network’s most valuable media property. Which they did as then Media Minister, Senator Helen Coonan, fell over herself in her haste to “do something about it”.

The whole brouhaha died and the item was quietly buried. But it helped undermine BB and forced the producers to go mean and nasty for the 2007 series which ended up bombing with the audience and forced Ten to cut costs by strong-arming the producers into changes.

We saw less of BB this year, although the appalling Monday night program, Big Brother Big Mouth, was allowed to remain on air. Its ratings sank and it was shuffled back to 10pm from 9.30pm and the performances of co-hosts FM radio hosts, Tony Squires and Rebecca Wilson (News Ltd sports hack), took a beating.

But if Ten and Endemol had stopped to think a couple of years ago about how to refresh the program and take it forward, they would have looked at changes to more reflect what was going on: the target audience was getting more idealistic, worrying about refugees, about the environment and climate change… why weren’t there people selected on the basis of their intelligence, not their bellicosity or their self centeredness?

The hosts for this year, Jackie O and Kyle Sandilands battled all year but they were symptomatic of the underlining weakness in the rigid format.

Ten and Endemol chose them because they rate well on Sydney FM radio. They have reputations of being abrupt, sometimes lazy, sometimes nasty people on air, who are intelligent. They are not boneheads.

And, yet they came across at times as crass, publicity-seeking individuals when what was needed after Gretel Killeen (who had become a caricature of herself after seven seasons of BB) was a host who was softer, more credible. Someone like Mr G, or his alter ego, Chris Lilley.

In many respects when BB moved from Holland to Britain and became a hit because it captured the oafish, narcissistic, bad lad younger British viewer perfectly, its ability to change was killed off. BB is fading around the world because of that inability to change.

Reworked, BB does have a future on the third channel Ten or Nine will be starting next year. Late night, beamed direct, with an occasional (once a week) main channel program. Change the format a bit: heavy internet premise, four houses with families or groups competing against each other (like school for most of us!) and tasks, games etc that are more relevant. And selfish acts to be punished/rewarded according to house votes, etc.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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