Part of my course in Communication and Media asks me to consider the Australian version of the “reality TV” show, Big Brother: something I’ve so far assiduously avoided doing.
The course specifically asks, Do you think that watching the [Big Brother] house on television can portray reality? Whose reality is this? When you think about the Australian ‘mass’ viewing population, do you think a majority of them would relate to the program? How do you feel about the use of SMS or telephoning to vote out contestants?
Ignoring the fact that either the word “watching” or the word “portray” has been used inappropriately, it seems pretty clear that the question expects the answer “yes”.
So yes, Big Brother can portray reality; but only a specific reality, the reality of a limited set of circumstances.
distorts the reality
The footage that makes up the show is selected from a larger pool of available footage, and edited on the basis of its predicted appeal to a mass viewing audience. It therefore cannot portray the reality of life in the Big Brother house, because it is incomplete. What is included is emphasised; what is omitted is suppressed. This unavoidably distorts the reality of life in the house.
Indeed, participants in the house occasionally claim that the footage presented has cast them in a misleading light. Last season, a gathering of friends of housemates reportedly claimed that “Big Brother … consistently misrepresented their loved ones, showing only their most antagonising aspects.”¹ Also during the 2006 season, evicted housemate Michael argued on-air that he’d been misrepresented: “Michael knew he hadn’t kissed David so he was trying to explain to [host Gretel Killeen] that as all the media were asking him about the ‘kiss,’ it must mean that BB had depicted the moment in such a way.”²
The footage does however portray reality for a core sector of the audience. This is the sector that most closely corresponds with, or at least identifies with, the traits and values on display in the footage. Examples of such traits and values include a certain age group, a certain mode of dress and grooming, certain patterns of speech and behaviour, and allegedly a certain level of intellectual sophistication. It’s important to note that it is not necessary for the target audience to possess the traits and values displayed; they need only aspire to those traits and values for the show to resonate with them.
It’s a matter for conjecture whether the Big Brother footage reflects the values of this core audience, or whether it shapes those values. Presumably elements of both are at work.
I don’t believe a majority of the Australian mass viewing population would relate to the program. It is a niche program, albeit a popular and/or well publicised niche program. It focuses strongly on a certain type, or demographic; which holds the advantage that it appeals powerfully to this demographic, but also holds the disadvantage that viewers who do not identify with its well-defined demographic are unlikely to relate to it: for example, viewers outside the age group it represents, or outside the culture it represents.
Certainly Big Brother is frequently referenced in mainstream media, but a rough ad hoc survey suggests that those references — whether from viewers or industry commentators — are divided equally between approval and disapproval, and even those who support the program for its voyeuristic or salacious appeal do not necessarily relate to it. This suggests that the program’s shared meaning extends, ironically, to those who disagree with it.
On the other hand, a significant number of those who dislike the program might still be able to relate to some aspect of it. It is pitched to the lowest common denominator, to which, by definition, the majority is able to relate. Who’s to say where the subsets intersect?
Big Brother’s use of SMS or telephone voting has positive aspects beyond that of revenue generation for the program. The voting process increases viewer involvement, and because this involvement (purportedly) changes the content of the program, it engenders a greater shared meaning than that enjoyed by most television programs, on which feedback has less effect.
The use of SMS or telephone voting invites negative criticism on the grounds that a small number of voters can, by voting many times, have a disproportionate influence on the outcome of the vote. Personally I feel this in fact accurately reflects aggregate support for the candidates: a viewer who cares enough to vote a hundred times, and pays to do so each time, is passionate, and arguably deserves a hundred times the influence of someone who only cared enough to vote once. However, it should be noted that I can afford to take a cavalier approach to the issue, because I don’t care enough to vote at all.
A more noteworthy criticism of the voting system is that those with higher disposable incomes can afford to lodge more votes than those with lower funding at their disposal. But as the question explicitly asks how I feel, I once again admit to indifference. Also, I would challenge the assumption that the subset of wealthier viewers cannot be an otherwise representative cross-section of viewers. Nor is it necessarily true that any candidate will appeal more strongly to wealthy viewers than to not-so-wealthy viewers.
It is perhaps worth noting that those viewers who waste their time and money by voting excessively for their preferred candidate are probably of lower intelligence than those who vote less zealously; and that the winner will consequently be the candidate least deserving of winning. This however presupposes that all fools will vote for the same candidate. Moreover, it presupposes that one or more of the candidates actually deserves to win.
Ultimately the voting system, like the show itself, is best described in the same terms as Government-run lotteries: a tax on stupidity.
1. Unattributed. Fifteen minutes of fame for Krystal’s best buddy, Bay Post, Moruya, 24 May 2006. Read online version
2. Deb Grunfeld. Tushy, tushy, Gretel, Who magazine’s TV Blog, May 30, 2006.