The Rise and Demise of Big Brother

September 4, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

As the Big Brother eye glazes over, with plummeting ratings and the cancellation of the Australian show, McGee Noble looks at the scarring psychological experiment that gave birth to this Mother of all reality TV shows.

The Beginning…

Big Brother began not in America as many might think, but in the Netherlands. On a Thursday in September 1994 four men, John de Mol, Patick Scholtze, Bart Römer and his brother Paul Römer sat in a room in the production offices of John De Mol productions and brainstormed ideas for a new show.

As they talked they began discussing an experiment run in the Arizona desert called ‘Biosphere 2’. Biosphere 2 was a US$200 million experiment constructed between 1987 and 1991 with the aim of exploring the interactions between earth’s life systems. However the experiment moved beyond simple life systems because it also encompassed something much greater- the possibility of closed biospheres that could be used in space colonisation.
Biosphere 2
Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert

Biosphere 2 took four years to build and had to be completely air tight so as to ensure that the environment was untainted by the outside. The participants were to be completely self sufficient within the sphere.

It was the size of two and a half football fields and within it was contained a rainforest, an 850 square meter ocean, a coral reef, mangrove wetlands, a savannah grassland, a desert and, importantly to the men at John de Mol productions, a human habitat.

What happened next is the stuff of fiction, riddled in mystery, conflict and strangeness. On September 26th 1991 eight people entered the biosphere. They would stay there together in this closed environment for two years until September 26th 1993.

In some ways the self sufficiency of the environment proved a success- bananas, sweet potatoes and peanuts grew well. However the oxygen in the facility, which began at 20.9% fell after a year and half to 14.5%.  The CO2 levels were so high that nearly all of the vertebrate species confined in the biosphere died.  Not a single pollinating insect survived.

Inside Biosphere 2

Inside Biosphere 2: This is where the participants lived for two years between 1991 and 1993.

The participants were constantly hungry. The sphere was not able to produce enough food to sustain them. Within a year factions had developed between the eight people, once close friends were now terrible enemies, with immovable hatred for the beliefs and personalities of their rivals.

By November 2002 the entrants into the biosphere began eating emergency food supplies- effectively nullifying a key aspect of the two year experiment. One of the participants, Jane Poynter, informed the CEO of Space Biospheres Ventures, Margaret Augustine, and for reasons that are unfathomable, was immediately dismissed. She was told to leave the biosphere, but never did.

In a strange twist the second experiment, which ran for ten months beginning March 1994, was sabotaged by two members of the first crew, Abigail Allign and Mark Van Thillo, when they broke in and opened all the doors, breaching the isolation critical to the sphere.

Inside Biosphere

The lush plants that grew inside the sphere

The story as we know it is full of holes. What made them hate each other so much? How did it become so passionate that it destroyed the experiment? Who caused it and why?  The facts only hint at the profound, deeply personal conflicts that must have underpinned the experiment, culminating in such a way that these overwhelmed the actual science of it.

So it was this experiment that sprung to conversation in 1994 as Jon De Mol and his colleagues discussed ideas for the show. You can see why – there is something intriguing and yet disturbing about the events at the Biosphere. There are echoes of Lord of the Flies, and the more modern The Beach.

Orginally the idea that these men came up with was known as The Golden Cage and called for 6 contestants to be locked up in a luxurious house for a year, with the winner walking away with 1,000,000 guilders (this show was later made in 2006 and lasted for eighteen months). However the pitch was toned down to a more manageable one: 100 days and 9 housemates. It would capture the isolation of the Biosphere and the sense of captivity, but to this would be added the magic reality TV mix of alternating luxury and deprivation. Looking at US shows like MTV’s The Real World, the idea of a diary room in which contestants could reflect and confess was added. This, along with the decision to create a slow burn drama that would be eked out by daily shows rather than a single weekly one and the banal yet captivating insight into the minutae of human drama, would all combine to create one of the most genre changing television forms in recent history. Voila, September 1999, Big Brother is born.

Davina McCall

Davina McCall has hosted the UK Big Brother since 2000

Its astonishing success in the Netherlands meant that it was quickly picked up around the world. It was first aired here in Britain in July 2000, produced by Endemol. In that first year it captured the nation. From the first eviction’s meagre 400,000 votes, by the last eviction show this had risen to a staggering 7.5 million.  These breathtaking figures had Channel 4 clamouring to satisfy viewers with Big Brother related content. Across the world spin off varieties were born, from Big Brother’s Little Brother in the UK, to adults only Big Brother in Australia.

There was a frenzy of debate; accusations of ethical conflict, of cruelty, sexualisation and commercialisation. It is hard to imagine, looking back at these earlier, far tamer Big Brothers, that it would, in fact, climb to a higher pinnacle of infamy.

Early on we were entranced by the banality of the Big Brother contestants, of their dramas which could be ours, of the pressure of isolation, watching friendships form and enemies made. We laughed when Anna sang an ode to the cameras about the boredom of it all. So unaware were they of the enormous fame they were gaining in the outside world that these contestants were not yet tainted by media savvy. They had long been accustomed to the cameras and for better or worse were themselves, warts and all, for the country to see.Anna Nolan

Anna Nolan sang to audiences and came second in the first Big Brother.

Then came the first celebrity Big Brother. We watched on in fascinated horror as Vanessa Feltz had a breakdown from the stress of the house – scrawling words in chalk across the table and yelling at ‘Big Brother’. Could this have been the first sign of how someone so aware of media scrutiny prior to entering the house could be pushed into mental crisis? And we laughed as we watched. There was little sympathy for Feltz at the time, more a gleeful schadenfreude at watching a once untouchable famous celebrity break under the stress.

This is one of the things that captured us, the breaking down of barriers between fame and normality. Anyone could be famous and the famous could be anyone. All of a sudden it didn’t take talent or beauty to be a celebrity, it merely took popularity– either for good reasons or bad.

In an attempt to retain its drama, producers began bastardising the very banality that made big brother interesting. They threw in prison tasks, separating the house, made sure the housemates were either beautiful or manipulative, brought in celebrities, returned hated villains. The drama was no longer natural but totally contrived and so, often, were the contestants. The success of the first series meant that hundreds and thousands of fame hungry, media conscious people turned up to auditions. The curse of the vain Charlie-type ensued, invariably with one eye on the mirror-sheilded cameras while conducting a conversation.

Jade Goody

The infamous Jade Goody was made famous by Big Brother

Ratings for Big Brother began to decline world wide. Here in the UK the show was rocked by scandals of prejudice and racism as an increasingly conscious casting of aggressive or scheming personalities became core to the show.

Today Big Brother is stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. In one instance producers pounce on the least transgression that may bring a controversy like the one provoked by Shilpa Shetty and Jade Goody, and yet in the next, they deliberately cast controlling, bullying personalities like this year’s Rex Newmark and Alexandra de Gale because they make for good conflict.

But the thing is, it’s not working. What once had us spellbound now just makes us bored. What had been an insight into everyday humanity has instead become a caricaturised spectacle of disaster- of prejudiced values, bullying tactics and sexual theatre.

In July this year Big Brother was axed by Australian network Channel 10. Many were shocked, for despite its continual decline in ratings and increasingly desperate stunts (paying a reported AU$500,000 to Pamela Anderson for a drop in to the show), the show has now become a television institution.

This cannot help but beg the question of how long Britain’s own Big Brother can go on for, and more importantly, how long we will continue to care. This mother of all reality shows, as it is generally known, made weary by all it has gone through, is now a grandmother: ageing, cynical and pitiable.

Looking back to that brainstorming session in September 1994, you cannot imagine that these four men knew what they were creating. From its origins in which it deliberately replicated a known and profoundly controversial, questionably ethical experiment, to becoming what it is now, a withering powerhouse in decline whose role as the bog pit of humanity is fairly institutionalised.

Despite its history and despite its once insightful entertainment value, today Big Brother’s eye has glazed over. We, the audience, no longer care what it sees. So maybe now, twelve years after the idea was first created, we can let that Grand Mother of reality TV pass quietly away.