Sunday, 26 July 2009

Where art thou, Big Brother?

Mark Lawson wrote an article in Friday's Guardian calling time on Big Brother. While much of what he wrote was the usual, tired show-bashing that's been doing the rounds for about the last six years, it is now time to consider the future of the show.

For those of us who are fans of the show, this year's Big Brother has shaped up to be one of the best. It's been devoid of huge scandal, but it's certainly not lacked drama and intrigue, thanks to a line-up of well-chosen housemates. Even the addition of five new housemates the week before last upped the ante, providing a glorious skewing of the house dynamics. In many ways, Big Brother has gone back to its roots as a social experiment. The interplay of thse characters has turned us all into armchair psychologists and body language experts.

Shame then that the viewing figures this year are the lowest ever, following a general downward trend that's been going on since the third series. It now attracts just a third of the viewers it did back then, though they have risen over the past week or so since anniversary week.

But the stark truth is that a sizeable minority of viewers have simply lost interest in the format. Channel 4 are contractually obligated to an eleventh series in 2010 and it's been confirmed that, save for unforseen circumstances, that series will indeed go ahead. But beyond that, they must be serious doubt that the programme will continue.

The key consideration is whether or not the show is still financially beneficial to the channel. I'm not entirely sure about this, but I believe that BB10 and BB11 were ordered by Channel 4 during or shortly after BB9, prior to the credit crunch. Since then, TV ad revenues have collapsed and, together with the lower ratings, the show must be less profitable than ever.

On the other hand I can't imagine that the show is, per hour, particularly expensive to produce in the first place. In the early years, it was widely known that the revenue generated by the show subsidised plenty of Channel 4's other output. Those days are probably gone, but Big Brother is still undeniably cheaper to produce than anything that might replace it and that might just be the one thing that saves it. If the show can financially hold its own with around 2 million viewers then, with the economy as it is, surely Channel 4 would favour that stability over risky punts on new formats and programmes?

Of course the ideal situation would be for a radical overhaul of the format to bring in more viewers. Essentially the show is the same every year and if doing the same thing every year leads to a decline in viewers then it stands to reason something fundamental needs to change to significantly reverse that decline. However it is hard to imagine what sort of changes could achieve that aim.

The future of Big Brother is on a knife-edge, but if I had to make a prediction I would say that Channel 4 will soon announce the recommissioning of the show up to BB12 then take a look at the books in a year's time.

Edit @6.57pm. After reading this interesting article by Maggie Brown I'm retracting my above comment that the show isn't partiuclarly expensive to produce as it appears Channel 4 is tied to what now appears to be a very expensive deal with producers Endemol. It's relatively inexpensive for Endemol, but not for Channel 4. It seems that Big Brother may now be running at a loss, which doesn't at all bode well for its future.

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