The high profile BBC television and radio presenter Jonathan Ross once remarked that French television was the best in the world because you were guaranteed some sort of circus-cabaret fusion show every single night of the week.
Ross is referring to the large number of variétés programmes that often feature unicycle riding fire-eating street performers as well as dancers from the Folies Bergères. Occasionally thrown into the mix will be an excellent music hall act that won’t quite make it feel that it was worth the wait or effort. This is the visual equivalent of listening to a Cabaret Voltaire record.
Is this what television should be: a continual loop of fairground acts once the preserve of dark shabby tents? This is not what Ross is suggesting. Acknowledging the broadcaster’s trademark irony, his comments are meant to stress the quality of British television and especially the quality of public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom. Yet one could argue that with shows such as Channel 4’s Big Brother, British television has already slipped into the realm of the freak show.
This is the ninth season of the fish bowl spectacle where George Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism has become symbolised by a digital TV remote control through which we play with the conditioned lives of the witting contestants. Nine years in, it may seem a little late for yet another critique of the programme’s content, but its continued media success needs our continued scrutiny, especially in light of current debates on public broadcasting in the United Kingdom.
Perhaps the most famous public service broadcaster is the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) with its mission to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. Today, BBC Television includes two analogue channels and seven digital channels; BBC Radio includes six analogue national stations and five digital radio stations as well as vast array of regional and local stations. Recent years have also seen the development of BBCi, its online services, notably with the launch of the BBC iPlayer on Christmas Day 2007.
All of these services are funded by a television licence fee which is currently worth £3.2 billion to the BBC and is both coveted and condemned by other broadcasters. Although commercially funded, Channel 4 is also a Public Service Broadcaster (PSB), and has recently argued for public subsidy to fund its analogue to digital changeover as well as its programming. This so-called ‘top-slicing’ of the licence fee would allow broadcasters to bid for financial support in order to develop their public service remit.
Perhaps surprisingly Britain’s biggest commercial television network, ITV, is making a move in the opposite direction. In the United Kingdom all terrestrial broadcasters must provide some form of public service programming, and this is usually done in the form of news content. ITV is now asking the British media regulator Ofcom permission to reduce its public service output which would enable ITV to undertake the cost-saving exercise of reducing its current affairs output and cutting down on regional productions.
To some extent this runs counter to the notion that the media, especially in light of new media, is moving inextricably to a more and more decentralised output, is allowing for hyper-locals to report on the hyper-local. ITV is here owning up to what a lot of television spectators already suspected – their interest lies not in the peripheral individual with his or her specialist interests but in the culturally mainstream dominant centre.
The intelligence of new technology is not ‘smart’, it is clever. Increased digital and web-based material have helped develop audience participation television on two fronts: on the one hand, ‘TV 2.0’ allows each of us to express to each of you the way we witness the world, it makes us all ‘journalists’ who can give our local quotidian the same status as that of a world leader; on the hand, the famous red button on the TV remote allows us as individuals to participate in mass events, by voting for the person we want to evict from the Big Brother house we are in communion with others, communicating with others without having to, well, communicate.
The Big Brother Corporation
As viewers perpetually in search of more celebrities to fulfil our narcissistic fantasies, we are accomplices to the mental torture that more often than not appears to result in the Big Brother participants slowly imploding once outside of the ‘House’. Collectively we form the O’Brien of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the character that the hero, Winston, believes will save him from the Party by initiating him into the rebel group known as the Brotherhood. Of course, Winston soon discovers that O’Brien is a Party spy. Each week the game show contestants offer themselves to us, hoping that we will save them. Except that for them salvation is to remain locked in the house – eviction is true condemnation, confirmation that they are unloved by the party of television viewers, by the Party itself.
The contestants are hooked on the systemic violence that the environment offers, having given up complete control to the anonymous voice that speaks from beyond the mirrors. With no responsibilities other than devising the shopping list, all the game show participants have left to do is await the next delivery of alcohol which will fuel their hedonism.
In his book Violence (2008), philosopher Slavoj Žižek recalls that in 2006 Time magazine awarded its ‘Person of the Year’ honour to ‘you’. Choosing to celebrate the mass communicative possibilities of cyber space, the magazine cover featured a keyboard and a mirrored computer screen. Žižek indentifies the irony here – whoever looks at the cover of the magazine sees not the person with whom they are meant to be communicating, they see only themselves.
Rather than participating in a collective experience, then, we are left in a world of dumb solipsistic egotism. No hermeneutic leap here is needed to see how we end up participating in such ‘collaborative’ projects as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube or Big Brother. They are all about ‘you’, or rather ‘ME’, and that’s all they will ever be about.
We understand then, that the extensive use of mirrors in the Big Brother house behind which many of the cameras are hidden means that when the contestants hear the voice of authority, it is their own reflexion that they see back. This self-reflexive conditioning seems to confirm Žižek’s premise that the fear we have of the Other, the violence we recognise in the Other, from terrorists to immigrants, is the violence we ourselves have built into our own system. Not so much ‘Big Brother is watching you’ but ‘you are watching yourself’, you are Big Brother.
The justification of the Big Brother game show as a social experiment was always a defunct argument, but also were the arguments against it being labelled as such. Difficult to condemn Big Brother as being stage-managed, society itself is an organised structure, a stage-managed environment. If we choose to avoid the rules of society, more often than not we are labelled as pathological and excluded from society, ostracised by our peers, interned or jailed by those officials that govern our lives.
The internet presents itself as a democratic force that can free us from the authority of the state because it allows the disparate peoples of this planet to communicate and collaborate. And yet we are rapidly reaching the extremes of this equation – today my internet profile or cyber-Self can be parasitically ‘mashed’ together by borrowing content generated by other users of the World Wide Web. My existence – difficult today to separate social reality from ‘virtuality’ – becomes a Frankenstein creature, my persona is constructed not through my own creativity but by juxtaposing the expressions of existence of Others.
Thus I am ‘Del.icio.usly’ bookmarked and ‘twittered’ into being. These are the extreme symptoms of postmodern identity politics where any trace of a master narrative is obliterated, where Jacques Lacan’s ‘master-signifier’ is banished to the authoritarian pre-post-industrial past. Collaboration, in this sense, is never having to decide who we really are, allowing us to escape all responsibilities; it means we never have to take a decision for ourselves whilst condemning those that make the decisions for us.
Big Brother holds up a mirror to this: one must collaborate with one’s fellow housemates so as not to be nominated for eviction by them and one must collaborate together with Big Brother to win tasks that allow the purchase of food (condemning other housemates in the case of failure but never the benevolent Big Brother).