Talking point

Could TV viewers still stomach the original Big Brother?

Reality show is set to return after a five-year break

Big Brother, one of Britain’s first reality TV shows, is set to return to screens next year after it was axed in 2018.

It will air on ITV2 and ITVX, promising a “contemporary new look” and a cast of “carefully selected housemates from all walks of life” living together under strict surveillance for up to six weeks. 

But a lot has changed since the show first launched on Channel 4 in 2000, partly due to the repercussions of ITV2’s existing flagship reality show Love Island. Scott Bryan at Variety is among the critics who has wondered whether Big Brother – one of the most influential reality TV shows in history – can “really thrive in today’s reality landscape”.

Standards ‘dragged’ into gutter

For one thing, the Big Brother house guests “drank liquor by the crateful”, said Amelia Tait in The Guardian. “Today, things are seemingly more sober.” Love Island’s “tortuous trysts are fuelled by fruit juice and nosecco”, she noted, with producers closely monitoring alcoholic intake.

Sarah Carlson, culture editor at the i news site, said Big Brother “defined 21st-century celebrity, transformed what we class as entertainment, and dragged our standards about what is considered proper and suitable for prime-time broadcast into the gutter”.

Fans will feel “nostalgic” about the show’s return, and ultimately, “a return to a simpler time” where viewers could watch contestants “having their brilliant little breakdowns in real time” without a “guilty conscience”. But when the original show aired, “aftercare and safeguarding and participant wellbeing were negligible, mere niggles compared to the task of chasing gargantuan viewing figures and cheap laughs”.

Uncomfortable viewing

“Staples that made Big Brother such addictive viewing, from providing housemates with considerable alcohol to airing full-blown arguments with minimal intervention, now wouldn’t be able to happen,” agreed Bryan in Variety.

Love Island put the mental health of reality stars in the spotlight after the suicides of former contestants Sophie Gradon, 32, and Mike Thalassitis, 26, and presenter Caroline Flack, 40, which prompted ITV to introduce extensive welfare measures to support participants before, during and after filming. 

When E4 decided to repeat classic episodes of Big Brother to celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary in 2020, it ended up having to “awkwardly cut some scenes out”, said Bryan. Although Channel 4 had no issue showing these scenes when they originally aired, viewers today now find them “uncomfortable and unjustifiable”. 

“Ultimately, contestant mental wellbeing is clearly an issue that viewers care about,” Bryan continued, and it could prove a significant challenge for Big Brother that “thrived on tension” and “providing a claustrophobic environment to stir up arguments”.

Fond memories

While reality TV fans may have “fond memories of these erstwhile-adored” shows like Big Brother, “the reason I think we love talking about them so much is because they’re in the past”, wrote Victoria Richards in The Independent

“That’s the reason I believe we love talking about TV, foods – even scents – we remember from our childhoods and from our teens,” Richards continued. But, ultimately, “bringing them back won’t work – it only risks ruining them”.

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