Big Brother is retreating around the world as life for broadcasters and marketers gets rougher and losses mount.

First, it was the Ten Network in Australia who did the deed last year and now Britain’s Channel Four is killing off Big Brother. Four announced overnight that Big Brother would end in 2010 after the next series in a year’s time.

Channel Ten dropped the show because it was not making enough money and it felt it could use the $20-plus million cost elsewhere. That money produced  the ratings juggernaut MasterChef and the surprise hit Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation.

Channel Four, a commercial, state-owned broadcaster, is taking the decision for a similar reason: it’s hurting financially because of the ad slump and other costs.

Ratings for Big Brother are now fewer than two million people a night (the series is on at the moment), but it averaged five million an episode earlier on and had nine million viewers at times in 2000 and 2001.

In its statement, Channel Four said:

That remit to push the boundaries has been an essential part of the weird chemistry behind Big Brother’s success, but it’s now what is telling us that the program has reached a natural end point on Channel 4 and it’s time to move on.

Cancelling Big Brother does not solve Channel 4’s funding issues; this year we’ve nearly £125 million ($A244.5 million) less to spend on programs than we did a couple of years ago and budgets for next year may have to be reduced further.

However, assuming advertising revenues stop deteriorating at some point, we should have greater flexibility in how we spend our commissioning budget; the significant sums that have been committed to Big Brother in the past should now be available to boost budgets in genres, such as drama, that have had to be cut back sharply during the downturn.

In Australia axing Big Brother has revitalised the Ten Network and, for this year at least, made it the best-performing broadcaster in terms of audience growth. Revenue has lagged behind because of the economic slowdown and it’s up to Ten to monetise those higher ratings with the celebrity version of MasterChef in October and November and then the new series next year.

Four has different problems in that it’s a hybrid network and is facing a black hole in its revenue base that is growing by the month because of the ad downturn and the fact that it is not getting any fresh money from the Government.

And it’s not just Channel Four that is having enormous troubles. Rival network Channel Five is owned by RTL, Europe’s biggest broadcaster (and a subsidiary of Bertelsmann, the German media giant). RTL also owns FremantleMedia, the international production house (it produces Farmer Wants a Wife in Australia, for example).

RTL reported terrible results overnight and its boss,  Gerhard Zeiler, was quoted in media reports as saying that economic recovery in Europe will not guarantee a return to growth for companies dependent on television advertising.

“In the future, advertising will not pay all the bills,” said Zeiler in The Financial Times.

Now, that’s a chilling warning.

Peter Fray

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