How Big Brother rang in the reality TV revolution

It’s something our readers may find hard to imagine, but there was an era where the concept of sticking cameras in someone’s house and filming their every move was an alien concept. That all changed with the launch of Big Brother UK in 2000.

The original Dutch version launched in 1999, but the first series of the UK version was a phenomenon like no other. Millions tuned in everyday to see the exploits of the housemates, the Oakenfold theme became a chart hit, and it spawned a cottage industry of C-list celebrities that haunted the pages of Heat and OK! Magazine for years to come.

It’s hard to understate how much of an impact Big Brother had on television as a whole. Without it, it’s difficult to imagine the likes of X Factor, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, or Love Island existing. Of course, your mileage may vary on whether that’s a good thing or not.

While singing contests like X Factor and The Voice are a spent cultural force and with ratings declining quicker than a winner’s album sales, fly-on-the-wall reality tv shows are as popular as ever. RuPaul’s Drag Race has gone from underground cult classic to mainstream hit, while you can barely go 5 minutes on the internet without seeing a gif from Keeping Up With The Kardashians, or any of its spin-offs.

Every genre needs a ground-breaking show to set the blueprint – the sitcom had I Love Lucy, the serialised drama had Miami Vice – and Big Brother was the urtext for the reality tv show. The concept of having an insight into peoples every waking hour being broadcast to millions was mind-blowing in 2000, but it’s something we take for granted in 2020.

If an influencer goes more than 36 hours without posting these days, we assume something terrible has happened to them – we want to know what they’re doing at all times. Big Brother set the fuse for the constant cycle of content that has come to dominate entertainment over the last 20 years.

Maura and Greg’s exploits on Love Island last year served as a reminder that people still do actually watch TV, with Virgin Media reporting a bump in viewing figures for the news broadcast that directly followed the show. Close to 400,000 people tuned in to watch the final last July, which is astounding numbers for a nation as small as Ireland, and that’s before getting into the concept of viewing parties or online streams.

Ireland has always had an interest in reality TV ever since Dubliner Anna Nolan finished as runner-up in the inaugural series, and Kildare man Brian Dowling winning the whole thing in 2001. Big Brother made such a splash, it was even briefly featured on the 2000 episode of Reeling In The Years. And as we all know, it didn’t actually happen in history unless it was featured on Reeling In The Years.

While Big Brother ended up fizzling out in the 2010s, there was no denying the impact it had. The Jade Goody/Shilpa Shetty controversy on the 2007 instalment of Celebrity Big Brother caused a ‘minor diplomatic row’ between the United Kingdom and India.

Months before taking over the role of Prime Minister, Gordon Brown was on a trip to India, and had to address the issue, telling journalists “I understand that in the UK there have already been 10,000 complaints from viewers about remarks which people see rightly as offensive…I want Britain to be seen as a country of fairness and tolerance. Anything that detracts from that I condemn.”

When a high-profile politician has to wade in, that’s a sure sign the show has infiltrated the public conscious. The 2016 instalment of Celebrity Big Brother also saw what is perhaps the funniest moment on British television this side of Peep Show:

Say what you want about viewing figures, but moments like that make television as a whole worth it. Without Big Brother, it’s hard to fathom a tv line-up without some form of reality tv on there. That’s a thought for another day – It’s A Wonderful Life, but a world where reality television never existed – but for now, we salute Big Brother for its services to culture.

Image credit via Flickr.com

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Mike Finnerty

Galwayman studying Journalism in UL.
Film school dropout, perhaps the only person in Ireland who still gets excited for DVD releases.

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