Big Brother Died for a Reason, But a Radical Reboot Could Save It

The original show was a brutal feast of manipulation, sex, and drunk drama. Reality TV has moved on immeasurably since then.

Victor Ebuwa, a contestant on the 2004 series of Big Brother, is reflecting on one of the TV franchise’s most notorious moments: fight night. “They got what they wanted,” he says, speaking about the producers. “They manufactured a confrontation. So for them to turn around afterwards and say, ‘Oh we’re giving you a final warning’. Shove it up your arse! You sent so much alcohol in there and a couple of maniacs under a tray – what did you think was going to happen? It was absolute carnage.”

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For those who don’t know, fight night was basically what it says on the tin: a sometimes physical fight between nearly all the housemates of Big Brother 5, which resulted in security being called in and one contestant being removed from the house. The incident was even investigated by the police (in part because of Emma telling Victor, “I’ll fucking kill you”).

Fight night – though extreme – was 2000s BB’s bread and butter. Arguments, twists, drunk people throwing food at each other with their faces painted like clowns – all of which was neatly constructed by producers for maximum entertainment, no matter the consequences for those involved. But, for better or worse, fight night will never happen again. Because TV, and culture, has moved on exponentially. 

Last week, ITV announced that it was rebooting Big Brother, with the new series set to premiere on ITV2 in 2023. It’s been five years since the show last went off air in the UK, after an eight-series run on Channel 5 – but the show had its heyday on Channel 4, where it lived from its inception in 2000 until 2010. Since then, the landscape of reality TV has changed immeasurably – and, while I’m sure there’ll be some tricks up ITV’s sleeve (à la Love Island), the new Big Brother will very likely be worlds away from the one we knew and loved (or loved to hate). 

“You can’t ever get the freshness back,” says Helen Wood, a professor of media and cultural studies at Lancaster University. “When Big Brother arrived, it was really trading on the idea of a psychological experiment. Well, there’s no experiment left.”

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In the two decades since Big Brother premiered, reality TV has become part and parcel of our everyday lives. Big Brother-esque wild antics have continued on MTV with shows like Geordie Shore and The Valleys; celebrities are annually tortured into eating live spiders on I’m a Celeb; and now we even watch people on our TV watching TV – but, of course, it’s ITV’s own Love Island that’s spawned the era we’re in now. Contestants know what’s within reach when they go on the show: big-budget spon-con deals, high-profile job titles and, of course, overnight fame.

None of this comes without a price, though. Love Island has been plagued by a string of tragic suicides, including that of its former host Caroline Flack, and viewers are increasingly critical of not only the behaviour of the contestants, but of producers’ manipulative tactics. Last year, in response to this backlash, broadcast regular Ofcom updated its duty of care guidelines to protect both vulnerable TV talent and those watching at home.

In this climate, then, a lot of what happened in the original Big Brother simply wouldn’t fly. “We’ve changed,” says Charlotte Armitage, a psychologist specialising in the film and TV industry. “We don’t want to see people going through trauma or being exploited anymore. I think there are ways of making reality TV entertaining without damaging people or causing distress.”

The series infamously played on contestants’ breakdowns, which it induced by giving them cold showers, electrocuting them or – shockingly – by forcing them to spend 26 hours in a box in order to get their weekly food budget. What’s more, housemates used to be plied with, as Victor calls it, “a weapons-grade amount of alcohol”, lubricating their ferocious arguments or sexual antics. While tasks may still be cruel in 2023, the alcohol intake is guaranteed to be controlled – like on Love Island, where they’re only allowed one or two drinks a night. In fact, Luke Anderson, the winner of 2012’s Big Brother, tells VICE that even 10 years ago, contestants were limited to two drinks a night. “One of my fellow housemates even tried drinking aftershave to get pissed,” he reveals.

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Without alcohol, there’s a risk of losing BB’s entertainment value – even if it is a morally good thing to not let housemates get shitfaced and throw food at each other – thus driving it to become more structured and forced than its predecessor. “There was no direction ever in Big Brother,” says Jo Hemmings, a behavioural psychologist who regularly appeared on Big Brother’s Little Brother. “It literally unfolded as it was going to unfold, with the only interventions being the drinks trolley or tasks. In Love Island, there’s a certain level of directing, which would be awful for Big Brother.” Instead, adds Hemmings, what’s key is a “good mix of people”.

Or, as Victor puts it: “What you’re going to need is one or two proper a-holes – a Boris Johnson [character], who’s going to put a cat amongst the pigeons. Everyone loves a good panto villain. And then I want to see heartbreak, I want to see tears. I want to see personalities who think they’re the biggest personality, but then they get in there.”

Glyn Wise, the runner-up of the 2006 series of Big Brother and now a trainee priest, agrees that it’s all about the extremes of personalities. “The success of Big Brother was the fact that it was a melting pot of society,” he tells VICE. “Like, when again are you going to get a gay cowboy, a porn star and a nun locked in a house?”

Instead of “emulating the Love Island” cast – “a bunch of 18-30-year-old hot glamour models and buff gym lads” – Glyn hopes BB producers will look for people with a mix of “opinions, ages, sexualities and ethnic backgrounds.” If it was up to him, he’d be looking for “your average librarian or someone from the Women’s Institute”.

That said, those choosing the contestants will likely be a lot more careful and scrupulous – and for good reason. “I don’t think half the people who ended up on Big Brother 20 years ago would end up on it now,” says Armitage. “They wouldn’t pass the psychs.”

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Armitage says pre-production assessments are the most essential duty of care measure, during which psychologists identify any “conscious or unconscious vulnerabilities that might be exacerbated through participating” in the show. Those who might be ruled out, explains Armitage, are people with “a history of severe mental illness, a risk of suicide or self-harm, or who’ve gone through trauma and not processed it yet”. Also people who struggle with interpersonal issues, or who don’t have a strong support network around them. “Once someone’s in it, you can’t undo it,” she adds.

Furthermore, the proliferation of social media has transformed not only those who might volunteer for this kind of experience, but also how they behave during it. “The people who go on these programmes are now much more media savvy,” says Wood. “They’ve grown up with reality TV, so they know what to expect. And the things we thought of as experimental in 2000, they don’t see as experimental at all, because they’re very used to self-presentation forms of branding.”

It may seem plausible, then, that 2023 BB contestants could simply perform for the cameras, in a real-world extension of their social media-built personal brands. Jonathan Bignell, a professor of television and film at the University of Reading and the author of Big Brother: Reality in the Twenty-First Century, says this probably won’t be the case. “No-one can sustain a performance all the time,” he explains.

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BB housemates and other reality TV contestants have become ‘better’ at being performers, but even trained actors can’t stay in character day and night for weeks.” Besides, he adds, “those moments when we suddenly see the cracks in a housemate’s persona – seeing behind the mask – have always been an important lure that keeps viewers watching, and I don’t think that will change.”

What’s more likely to influence their behaviour than their own desire to perform is the reaction of the viewers, which is increasingly being brought into reality shows like Love Island to give contestants an idea of how they’re being perceived in the outside world. “The audience doesn’t just vote anymore,” says Wood, “it posts comments online, it makes memes, it generates its own content – all of which extends what the brand can be.”

New BB housemates already know that social media engagement – see: judgement – with reality shows is at a fever pitch, so may play into the successful character tropes they’ve seen before. This will also influence who’s chosen to go into the house in the first place, as many personalities might be deemed unfit to deal with the social media aftermath. “It was eventful, to say the least,” says Luke. “[In] one tweet I’d be getting sinister death threats, and in another I’d be getting pure love and thanks. Needless to say my anxiety levels were through the roof.”

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Aftercare is a key area that Big Brother will need to improve on from its 2000s heyday, Victor tells VICE. “[The producers were] dogshit with duty of care,” he declares. “When I came out, it was the absolute bare minimum. You have the psychologist speak to you the moment you’re evicted, then you get a five-minute phone call [further down the line]. It was abysmal.”

By Luke’s series, in 2012, it seems to have improved a little. “Initially it was phenomenal,” he says, “[but then it felt] like this is what happened: ‘Congratulations you won, here’s your suitcase and a single train ticket to Chester, we’ll review in a year’.” Luke reveals that he had “major anxiety” after the show, and that an ambulance had to be called to the “secret BB hotel” he was staying in after it ended. “I honestly thought I was having a heart attack.”

In light of it’s experience with Love Island – as well as a heightened society-wide focus on duty of care when it comes to reality TV contestants – it’s likely ITV’s aftercare will be much more thorough than it was for former Big Brother contestants.

Truthfully, no reality TV show can ever match what Big Brother once was. There’s a dichotomy now, where people want authentic, explosive entertainment, but (very rightly) don’t want the techniques previously used to achieve it – like alcohol, cruelty and vulnerable contestants. This means producers will be forced to interfere more to bring us the daily spectacle we so crave, which is the antithesis to what Big Brother was about in the first place.

As Glyn points out, new contestants will need to “fall in love, fall out of love, have an argument within the space for 24 hours, and then again every day for three months – all just to keep the viewing figures going… Gone are the days where you’ll watch someone cook an egg or have a meltdown over the aircon.”

At the time of writing, ITV hasn’t responded to VICE’s request for comment.

@britdawson / @lilylk__

Tagged:

reality tv, Big Brother, Television, Big Brother UK, ITV2

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