Big Bother

Big Bother, by Alex Murdoch - 8th July 2006
(Credit: The Courier-Mail)

Does Big Brother, asks entertainment reporter Alex Murdoch, manipulate the audience as well as the contestants?

IT'S called reality television. A group of people are crammed into a house, cut off from the outside world, surrounded by cameras and told to interact.

Most are young, attractive and in some cases naive, seemingly drawn towards the lure of fame -- or at least their 15 minutes of it.

But at what cost? Since it's inception in the Netherlands in September 1999, Big Brother has spread to almost 70 countries -- leaving a string of scandals in its wake.

* In the US a male contestant pulled a knife on a female housemate, and was immediately removed.
* In the UK police were called to stop a brawl that broke out in the house.
* Similar incidents occurred in the US and Spain.
* In the UK a man threatened to commit suicide if he was not allowed out of the house.
* In Thailand the Government considered shutting down the first series when two contestants became friendly; holding hands and cuddling.
* In Denmark a woman became pregnant on the show.
* In Portugal a couple was kicked out of the house for having sex.
* And in Australia two men were accused of sexual assault and thrown out of the house.

Internationally at least five people believe their lives have been ruined by the show, with three attempting suicide as a result. And they are not alone.

In the shows Expedition Robinson (Sweden) and Sylvester Stallone's The Contender -- which has been seen on Foxtel -- contestants did commit suicide after the shows finished taping.

In the case of the latter, promising boxer Najai ``Nitro'' Turpin took his life before the series went to air -- with NBC later deciding not to let a suicide stand in the way of the show.

So what is the worst-case scenario?

After watching the UK and Australian first series versions of Big Brother, British author Ben Elton wrote the bestseller Dead Famous.

A black comedy, the book revolves around a murder in a compound, suspiciously like the Big Brother house, called House Arrest.

Because the murder was committed at night, the killer remains a mystery, drawing in legions of viewers.

But could such a thing happen inside Australia's BB house?

As a psychologist on the first Australian series of Big Brother (which is produced by Endemol Southern Star for Channel 10), Dr Bob Montgomery has first-hand knowledge of the way the BB beast springs into action.

The Australian Psychological Society communications director says he was privy to many discussions in the show's initial season and often helped think of ways to spice things up.

``As soon as ratings flag they'll have a little brainstorming meeting -- I used to sit in on some -- and try to think of what they can do next to try to grab people's interest,'' Montgomery says.

``In that way they're no different from any other program.''

Montgomery says the universal truth of television is that harmony simply does not rate. Viewers don't want to see people getting along.

They want to see controversy and conflict -- ingredients Big Brother is happy to provide. This week Australia's BB captured attention when housemates Michael ``Ashley'' Cox, 19, and Michael ``John'' Bric, 21, were removed after ``turkey-slapping'' a female housemate.

Footage of the incident, broadcast over the internet to BB subscribers, shows Bric with his arm across Camilla Halliwell, 22, while Cox slaps her across the face with his penis.

What isn't widely known is that the footage also shows Halliwell, who voluntarily got into bed with the two men, asking what they were going to do to her and saying ``You're not going to turkey slap me are you?'' just before the incident occurred.
Continued P53

Is Big Brother too much bother?
From P51
Rumours suggest Halliwell had allegedly been daring the male housemates to ``turkey-slap'' her for days.

Police were called to assess the evidence, but after speaking to all three participants -- Halliwell herself says they were only ``mucking'' around and refused to lay charges on her former housemates -- found the boys had no case to answer.
Critics labelled the move a media stunt to stop the show's sliding ratings. If this was the case it worked -- more than 1.5 million viewers tuned in on Sunday to hear details of the alleged assault.

University of Queensland reality TV authority, and author of the Big Bother book on Big Brother, Dr Toni Johnson-Woods says people will do anything to get their hands on money -- including enduring public humiliation.

``All they see is the glittering prizes, the gold, the incense, the frankincense, the myrrh, they don't see that by having the light on, you can sometimes reveal unsavoury things about your past or about you,'' she says.

``They don't realise that they're simply a puppet, with Big Brother the puppet master.''

Funnily enough this year's prize money has fallen from $1 million to $270,000.
Media analyst Greg Tingle, from the Media Man, says there is no doubt Big Brother created the tinder box conditions -- frustrated sexuality and enforced continued confinement, combined with an alcoholic catalyst -- which eventually exploded between the trio in the early hours of Saturday morning.

``They (Big Brother producers) don't say go and commit a sexual assault, but they set the scene because sexual activity is encouraged and they had the (now defunct) Big Brother Adults Only show,'' he says.

Ian Warner, the media director of O2 Integration, says the incident has been blown out of proportion and agreed it had all the hallmarks of a publicity stunt.

University of the Sunshine Coast popular culture lecturer Dr Karen Brooks went further, by suggesting that by only providing double beds BB made his real intentions clear from the outset.

Last year's Big Brother runner-up Tim Brunero says people can hardly set up a reality TV environment and then complain because real things happen.

``Surely as a society, we then get to discuss those issues -- so it then becomes a net positive,'' he says.


Reality TV

Big Brother