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).
Break the rules of Big Brother, and you will not be evicted from the House, you will suffer a far worse fate, you will be removed. Removal means that you forgo your moment in the spotlight, the post-eviction interview and analysis, the viewing of ‘your best bits’. Removal means you leave by the back door in a shroud of shame, denied the humanising act of communication, punished for your expressions of autonomy. The reasons for removal may be justified, just as reasons for imprisonment may be justified, but this simply confirms that no matter how ‘free’ we believe we are, society is an organisation in which the lives of individuals are administered.
The Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s story brings us back to the question of public service broadcasting. Known as ‘minitrue’ in Newspeak, the artificially created and controlled language that has replaced English, the Ministry of Truth is the propaganda machine for which the hero Winston works, and was drawn from Orwell’s experience of working for the BBC.
For Orwell, the BBC shaped our historical reading of the Second World War by censoring the news, by applying in today’s language an ‘editorial policy’. This is not outright lying – no serious news organisation would be happy in partaking in deliberate fraud – but the media landscape is made up of ‘mini-truths’ delivered in an affected formulated ‘news-speak’.
Flat-screening the World
Big Brother, the game show, may not be broadcast on the BBC, but Channel 4 is also a public-owned broadcaster. Indeed, as their website informs us, Channel 4’s “primary purpose is the fulfilment of its public service remit” and in 2003 the Communications Act underlined Channel 4’s remit as developing programming that:
(a) demonstrates innovation, experiment and creativity in the form and content of programmes;
(b) appeals to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society;
(c) makes a significant contribution to meeting the need for the licensed public service channels to include programmes of an educational nature and other programmes of educative value; and
(d) exhibits a distinctive character.
Big Brother, Bodyshock Special: I am the Elephant Man, Gok’s Fashion Fix and Time Warp Wives could perhaps all be described as “educational in nature” if not in value. But then as cynical postmoderns perpetually ‘ironicising’ the mediated world around us, surely everything that stimulates our sensory perception is educational in nature. These shows, however, do bustle against programmes more obviously fitting the public service remit such the award-winning Channel 4 News and the Richard Dawkins documentaries including The Root of All Evil?, The Enemies of Reason and The Genius of Charles Darwin.
Television has a tendency to flatten intellectual debate; problems of time and ‘confusing’ multi-voiced exchanges lead to a dogmatic rendering of intellectual arguments. In the name of subjectivity, ‘two-sides of the argument’ may be presented but this is done either to create televisual fireworks by sparking conflict (rather than a constructive thought process) or to affirm one particular viewpoint (by opposing it to alienating opinion). The latter offers one strong critique of Dawkins’s television work, with his books obviously affording him more space.
Author: George Orwell
US publication date: 1950-07
Contributors: Erich Fromm (Afterword)
The juxtaposition of all of these various programme contents equally flattens the impact of current affairs programmes and so-called hard-hitting documentaries. We may be tempted to reject editorial policy as ‘spin’, but equally a master narrative as large as the PSB remit offered to Channel 4 appears to make little ‘sense’: such broad subjective notions as ‘creativity’, ‘educational’ and, perhaps worst of all, ‘taste’ are devoid of any essence but are linked to historical context.
But here lies the brilliance of Channel 4 programming: the PSB remit lies not in the content of the individual programmes but precisely in their mashing. It is this violent clash that answers to the so-called “culturally diverse society”, where Dispatches: It Shouldn’t Happen to a Muslim, dealing with growing intolerance against British Muslims, jostles against 10 Years Younger, where women subject themselves to tummy tucks on their daughters’ behest (we shall leave aside a discussion on the violence associated to the desire to eradicate any trace of having fulfilled a reproductive role).
Though Big Brother forms the backbone of Channel 4’s summer schedule, the BBC itself is not immune to audience participation television. In fact, much of its recent fare has been built on an odd attempt to promote the London’s musical comedy scene by asking the public to phone vote for their star elect on such shows as How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, Any Dream Will Do and I’d Do Anything. These competitions have done much to draw the crowds back to the West End by reviving interest in The Sound of Music, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Oliver!, respectively.
On the face of it, these shows are no different to the plethora of Simon Cowell controlled talent shows such as X-Factor. These shows are not designed to promote the burgeoning artists but to fatten the bulging wallet of the person presiding over the panel of judges. Thus, Cowell’s production company Syco produces the show X-Factor and also has the rights to sign the winner. If, with one winner, things don’t work out as well as they might, then Cowell only needs to wait another year for the following series. In the United Kingdom Cowell is tied to ITV, an obvious marriage for this type of overtly mercantile programming.
The BBC programmes do much the same for multi-millionaire musical mogul Lord Andrew Lloyd Weber’s economic portfolio. Every year the man behind Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats sees his latest production to be staged in a theatre he owns given a primetime schedule on perhaps the world’s most extensive PSB. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, this is where Kevin Spacey, as artistic director of the Old Vic theatre in London, found objection:
“I felt that How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? was essentially a 13-week promotion for a musical, on a public service broadcaster.
“You are not a commercial broadcaster and I thought that was crossing the line. Where’s our 13-week programme when we put a play on? Are they going to do one about a play?”
It appears more difficult to justify these programmes as adhering to a public service remit than it does where concerning Big Brother, begging the perennial question: is this what I pay my television licence fee for? If we found our judgement on a quantitative basis then we must turn to the ratings. As the finals of BBC’s I’d Do Anything and ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent went head-to-head on the same night, it was ITV that came out winners, gaining twice as many viewers as their broadcasting rivals. If we are to believe these results, then currently Britain’s most talented person is a 14-year-old break-dancer who did his routine under a shower of water to the Mint Royale remix of ‘Singing in the Rain’.
Jodie Prenger, on the other hand, will sing the role of Nancy every night at the Theatre Royal in front of what one would expect to be a packed house. But if musicals are the lowest common denominator of the theatre world, the genre still remains on the fringes of the most popular of cultural expressions.
Public service broadcasting should never be judged quantitatively, however. If this were the case there would be no place for national news, let alone regional news, and it is precisely current affairs that forms the basis of much public service content. It could be argued that the BBC programmes bring the West End to a larger audience; one could even claim that in this particular case audience participation is giving London’s theatre heartland back to the people.
But in 2007 Simon Cowell also decided to take a slice of the musical pie by co-producing ITV’s Grease is the Word to find new performers for the roles of Sandy and Danny. Given the evolution of their programming over the past five years this should have been BBC territory, leaving Cowell to conclude:
“I think it’s good the BBC haven’t got it so it isn’t coming out of licence fee payers’ pockets. I think we have done a great service.”
A great public service? A great service for private financial gain? Cowell has since admitted that he would never produce such a show again, not because it was too close to a public service remit but because it was too close to his own X-Factor! This is an even more damning critique of the BBC’s choice of programming, but the director of digital content for Guardian News and Media, Emily Bell, believes that the recent appointment by the BBC of Tim Davie, the former head of marketing who joined the BBC in 2005 after a move from PepsiCo, as director of audio and music to be a move towards a management model more in tune with commercial interests:
“[His] are essentially commercial attributes, which benefit the public service ethos but don’t necessarily create it. Nobody wants a BBC that doesn’t know how to engage an audience, but neither do we want a BBC that only knows how to engage an audience. It fits a narrative which sees Mark Thompson [Director General of the BBC] moving inexorably towards a post-licence fee world, where skills such as consumer focus and growth have greater importance than a frontline knowledge of production.”
This leaves Bell to conclude that “What is particularly vexing for those of us who would genuinely like to see the BBC thrive in a true public-service sense … is that the more the corporation seemingly prepares for the end of the licence fee, the more it appears to want to hasten its demise.”
Recent publicity about how much the BBC pays its stars has fed into this dilemma. The BBC pays its stars commercially competitive fees so that it can produce shows that will draw in big audiences and will sell abroad. Graham Norton’s popularity in the United States, for instance, must go some way to paying back the £5 million pounds it cost the BBC to poach him from Channel 4. Jonathan Ross is the BBC’s most expensive investment with his reported three-year, £18 million contract coming up for renewal in 2009.
At that price you would think that he could pay for fire-eating unicyclists to appear on his own show.