The Writer’s Perspective – 15/7/08

Big Brother: Addiction and eviction

When “Big Brother” made its Australian debut around the turn of the century, I tuned in a few million others. The premise was, if nothing else, an interesting social experiment – a group of people willing to have the minutiae of their daily lives broadcast across the nation for mass consumption. And let’s be honest here: voyeurism played a large part in the show’s initial popularity. The adults-only program spoke to the shy, spotty teenager inside us all, the one who wished his attractive neighbour might accidentally leave the blinds open while changing one evening…

But during the second or third season, I found myself staring vapidly at the TV screen as a bunch of nobodies lazed about and talked garbage – which is a fair summation of the daily show. I realised my brain was almost entirely disconnected from what my eyes were seeing. I was wasting half an hour a night, 150 minutes a week, on nothing. I could be in the study working on a novel or taking the dog for a walk or talking to my girlfriend or doing one of a thousand things with more intrinsic value than gawping at a bunch of vacuous strangers whose lives were far less interesting than my own.

Yet at first, I couldn’t give it up.

“Big Brother” was like an insidious drug – I felt like I was getting something from it during the experience, but when it was gone it left me hollow intellectually and emotionally. Even knowing that, though, getting off my daily “Big Brother” hit was tough. What stupid thing would Christie say tomorrow? What was the latest screaming match about? Who is porking who? I needed to know these things, just like a junkie needs his next fix of smack.

What finally got me off the “Big Brother” gear were my own writing aspirations. I took stock of those 150 minutes a week (not to mention another 150 for the weekly eviction et al) and wondered what I might achieve if I devoted them to my then-unpublished stories and novels.

As a would-be writer, I also had cause to wonder how many talented television scribes were working in call centres or stacking shelves because “Big Brother” had stolen their daily bread with its meaningless brain-candy. Was it not possible that for every ‘celebrity’ housemate, a writer went unrecognised and unemployed?

And then there was the kicker: Kids were idolising the drivel-talking dunderheads that emerged from the “Big Brother” house. Rude, bed-hopping imbeciles were now cool. What do you want to be when you grow up, Timmy? I want to be a self-centred slacker who holds girls down and hits them in the face with my dick.

So for those reasons, I went cold turkey. I devoted those four or five precious hours a week to my writing. Lo and behold, good things started to happen. Publishers began to write responses that did not contain the word ‘unfortunately’. I felt better about myself, and my life improved in general.
About midway through “Big Brother”’s run, I began to actively hate it. Whenever it came on, I changed the channel. It pained me to think of the young people rotting their minds each day when so much entertainment – real, nutritious entertainment, or at least entertainment with some sort of point – was available.

This year, much to my delight, “Big Brother”’s ratings fell into the toilet.

I think I was ahead of most media commentators on this. As soon as the series began, I checked the weekly ratings guide in TV Week. For years “BB” had hovered in the top 10 or 20, refusing to relinquish its position. But in 2008, it did not appear. Not even the debut episode did very well.

Then last week, we got the good news. “Big Brother” – at least on Channel Ten – is no more. There’s some talk that other free-to-air stations will vie for it, but I doubt they’re that stupid. It will probably end up on pay TV for a year or two and fade away.

So what killed it? Diminishing novelty value is undoubtedly one factor. But I believe the key reason is that its core audience – the tweens and teens who were naive enough to idolise half-witted ‘beautiful people’ – are now adults. And the next generation of youngsters don’t see show as ‘theirs’. They have their own viewing fads, hopefully with more redeeming values than “Big Brother”.

As a writer, I bid fond good riddance to “Big Brother” and hope we can now return to programming that requires actual skill to conceive and create. Speaking of which, what has Channel Ten done with “Burn Notice”?

Kris Ashton is gaining a reputation as one of Australia’s hottest SF writers. His new short story ‘Modifications’ is available via podcast at www.welltoldtales.com.