Vicky Pollard is watching
...and she has her finger poised on speed dial. John Kelleher discovers the secret behind reality TV is appearing to empower the young, poor, unrepresented female
How many young people will vote in next month's general election? In 2001 their turnout was the lowest since 1918 and many politicians and pundits worry it will be worse this time.
But young people do vote. When it comes to reality TV, they're avid participants. Thousands clamour to appear and millions vote to expel inmates from the Big Brother house, to choose which celebrity to remove from the jungle, or to decide who should become a pop idol. In the five British series of Big Brother since it launched in 2000, some 80 million votes have been cast -overwhelmingly from people under 30. The programme, now shown globally, is an astonishing financial success and defines the zeitgeist more than any other contemporary television. Why is it so successful?
The man who brought the show to Britain, Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Endemol UK, offers some answers in a fascinating book detailing the business story behind the show and examining its wider cultural implications. A couple of years ago UK academics studied its success to see what lessons it offered to lure a "lost" generation back into politics.
They found it most popular among young women from poorer socio-economic groups who felt empowered by seeing a swift and direct result from voting - in contrast with real democracy. Stephen Coleman, professor of e-democracy at Oxford, says "authenticity" was the overriding message with fans, contrasting the honesty of the "housemates" with politicians, whom they considered "unreal, opaque and devious".
But empowerment doesn't automatically spring to mind when considering the impact of Big Brother. It makes millions for its Dutch creators Endemol, from global sales and from young viewers who telephone premium lines to vote. But isn't such voting really a form of virtual reality, giving the illusion of influence? And the programme participants, so avidly tracked by millions while "housemates", generally vanish into obscurity after a twilight of temporary celebrity. Critics are almost universal in condemning the show. Former US President Bill Clinton said: "These people (the participants) are prostituting themselves to media conglomerates." Novelist Salman Rushdie wrote: "Who needs talent when the unashamed self-display of the talentless is on offer?" And professional critics dismissed it variously as "gross, ghastly, inane, cynical, sad, dissipated, desperate, seedy, voyeuristic, creepy, phony".
Bazalgette says these "ritual denunciations" come mostly from middle-aged men "who have been brought up to abhor displays of emotion and who didn't understand this new, media-savvy generation". Big Brother has made its creator John de Mol one of Europe's wealthiest men, and rich rewards may also have helped quell Bazalgette's earlier doubts about the show. In 1998, after his own television production company merged with Endemol, he warned that Big Brother was: "Far too cruel, and wilfully so, for the British market."
Now Big Brother is in the cultural mainstream and the wisdom is that if you're under 30, and especially if you are female, then you may well love it. But if you're a middle-aged male then you may hate it and probably don't get it, just like Bob Dylan's Mr Jones, who had no chance of understanding the youth revolution of the 1960s. Bazalgette draws cultural parallels with this youth culture. Older critics denounced Elvis Presley in the 1950s, and "from that point on successful innovations in entertainment went through a cycle, appealing to the emerging generation and appalling their elders. The disgust of the latter ensured success with the former."
Tim Gardam, the Channel 4 executive who first commissioned Big Brother, says: "In all its raunchiness, it revealed the truth of a generation... which was fundamentally different from generations before. They had no sense of propriety, no sense of modesty, they were open, honest and candid with each other."
Big Brother is the most vivid example of an increasingly irreverent genre focusing on what Bazalgette calls "painfully ordinary people". It also draws inspiration from internet phenomena such as voyeuristic webcams by merging the desire to watch with a passion to be observed. But is it the latest manifestation of a youth revolt, or merely a cynical commodification of this youthful impulse to rebel against an older order? Appraising forerunners of reality TV formats, Bazalgette says: "Television was moving towards being less of an art form and more of a commodity. Producers were now having to make programmes less for themselves and more for the audience."
But those who defined earlier visions for broadcasting always argued that they too made programmes for audiences, though with loftier ideas about who their viewers were. Bazalgette relates a parallel tale of another even more globally successful format: Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, devised by the British producer Paul Smith. It reveals money to be the true motor behind all of this. The defining art at the heart of this new era of television is the deal.
Only recently has the convergence of the internet, television and telephony enabled Big Brother's creators to come up with its unique multi-platform format and to offer a "uniquely media-savvy generation" the ability to achieve brief fame. But why do so many young people seek to be exposed, warts and all? The contemporary cult of the celebrity says fame without substance is enough. It reflects a new generation's disenchantment with both the idealism and the materialistic obsessions of previous generations.
More prosaically, Big Brother may also reflect a demystification of the medium for a generation used to domestic digital media, filming and editing and beaming pictures to each other via mobile phones or the web.
Britain enjoyed a brief reputation for producing the best television in the world, but now broadcasting is international and reality TV is at its heart. As Germaine Greer said before her own brief encounter with Big Brother: "Reality television is not the end of civilisation as we know it.
It is civilisation as we know it."