Peter Bazalgette is Chairman of Endemol UK, the UK's biggest independent producer of entertainment for the global market. Bazalgette brought 'Big Brother' across the sea from Holland, where the self-proclaimed 'television experiment' was piloted in 1999 and became the second most watched programme on Dutch television. Since the first episode aired in the UK in July 2000, 'Big Brother' has been exported to offer 20 other countries and scooped 16 industry awards. Other Endemol uk success stories, 'Changing Rooms' and 'Ground Force', have become hits in offer 16 other countries.
Since the phenomenal success of 'Big Brother', hundreds of spin-offs have followed, such as 'Joe Millionaire', 'Bachelorettes in Alaska', 'Survivor', 'Dog Eat Dog', 'Temptation Island', 'Pop Idol', 'Fame Academy' and, with much controversy, the class-conscious 'Real Beverly Hillbillies'. Here, Bazalgette reflects on the history of 'Big Brother', and the acceptance of reality television as a legitimate form of entertainment.
'Reality Television' is a bit of a misnomer, really, isn't it? I mean, it's not real at all!
Reality television is a completely false premise from which flows a real situation. We need to take both those points on board. People would not normally find themselves together in that house in that way with cameras on them. But having said that, what flows from it is real behaviour.
How did you get the idea for 'Big Brother'?
Well, 'Big Brother's' origins are with a Dutch entertainment company called Endemol. We at Endemol UK sold ourselves to that Dutch company in 1998, so we luckily automatically had the rights to 'Big Brother' when it was invented in 1999. But actually its provenance was in gestation for about 18 months in Holland. They had an idea called 'The Golden Cage', where they were going to lock people up for a year, which was considered quite onerous . . .
Slightly barbaric as well . . .
Possibly, yes, but then you might take that approach to quite a lot of what's on television! But it was considered too onerous, and as they gradually refined it down we had a small amount of input into it, because we knew what they were developing. But really it was their piece of work. It was originally turned down by four or five Dutch television channels (who were all made to look like Decca, who turned down the Beatles in 1962), and taken on board by this quite small channel called Veronica. It started very slowly, but then after about three weeks a couple in it called Bart and Sabine got romantically entwined, and this became a great sort of celebrated incident in the newspapers. It suddenly took off, and a huge number of people were watching it. About the time it took off in Holland, I started to offer it to broadcasters here, and we got the best deal with Channel 4.
Were any channels resistant to the idea at first?
By that time it had taken off in Holland. It was a hit in one country abroad so there was a certain appetite for it. Channel 4 and Five and the BBC all wanted it. I told the BBC to trust me that it wasn't for them if we'd gone with the BBC they'd have got so screwed up in what is or isn't public service broadcasting, what should and shouldn't have been done, that the whole thing would have got constipated and it never would have happened. So we discounted the BBC's bid. ITV turned it down, and Sky One never even replied. So Channel 4 and Five sort of slugged it out for a deal but Channel 4 got it. They offered rather more money.
I bet they're quite pleased they did.
Yes. I think it's actually been very good for Channel 4. In the era of multichannel television with hundreds of channels, it's very, very difficult for channels to be heard, to raise their head above the parapet, to be noticed. And one of the ways you can do that is by having something that is greater than the sum of its parts, something that does get noticed something like Big Brother. So altogether the programme punches above its weight and it gives a profile to the channel. Channels are looking for this sort of 'event television' these days because of the nature of the competition.
Do you think it's getting harder for channels to produce that kind of programming, particularly if they try and follow in the mould of Reality Television?
Yes, up to a point. When a new sort of television is invented and it's popular, there will be, in a Malthusian sort of way, an oversupply of it in the first flush as not only the channel that worked it tries to replicate it, but other channels replicate it too. There will be such an oversupply of it that the public will then feel they have a glut of it and draw back. But you normally find that the original brands like 'Big Brother' survive.
Can you go on being crazy sensations? No, you can't, and I don't think the key lies in ever more extreme things going on. I mean, 'Big Brother' is pretty tame compared to a lot of other programmes that have been put on television since, which purport to break people's marriages up, or get people married at no notice, or whatever! It's a comedy of manners, a sort of relationship show. I think the answer is that it's here to stay. But there will be other new ideas and other combinations of creativity and technology to come that will surprise people.
I remember back in the late 80s and early 90s people saying "Television? There's nothing new in television, it's all been done." Well, demonstrably in the last ten years, in a much more competitive, format-driven era, television has kept on reinventing itself. And 'Big Brother' is the first piece of 21st century entertainment, in that as a fan of it, as a viewer of it, you can access it in about six different ways at any hour. You can watch the free to air documentary on Channel 4, you can watch the streaming on E4 where you've got an interactive choice between 10 minutes ago or two hours ago, you can go to the web, take part in chat rooms, place bets, you can vote on the phones, you can take SMS text messages, text alerts, you can listen to packages on the radio. It's a fantastically powerful idea.
What were your favourite moments making 'Big Brother'?
Each series so far has had a sort of emotional peak. The first one was Nasty Nick. Most of the 'Big Brother' programmes around the world had had sexual incidents in them, and Britain didn't have one. (We've had no sex in the 'Big Brother' house it's a case of 'no sex please, we're British.') But we did have, in the first series, instead of sex, we had what we prefer, which was a class incident where the public schoolboy Nasty Nick was defeated in a kangaroo court by Working Class Craig. And he went on to become the eventual winner because he was seen to just cut Nasty Nick up in a sort of forensic way, very intelligently, very cleverly, and this was beloved by the class-conscious British public: the toff being defeated by the geezer.
The second series, of course, was the love affair between Paul and Helen. A splendid romance they're still living together now. The highlight of the third series was Jade, and her journey to quite a lot of money at the end of the day. She was also vilified by the press, and then they were ashamed of their disgusting behaviour and they turned round and supported her at the end. But my favourite quotation, I think, from the entire series was from a character called Tim (in the third series) who was a middle-class boy. He was very annoyed in the diary room one night, and was complaining that the other people in the house called him arrogant. "Arrogant?" he said, "I haven't portrayed myself as arrogant!" I thought it was a wonderfully revealing remark about the characters' ambivalent relationship with whether they are themselves or whether they are playing themselves.
"I have not portrayed myself as arrogant . . ."
But are you?
I've noticed that you refer to the contestants as characters . . .
Well, they are!
Do you think they play themselves up? Are they different from who they are away from the cameras?
No, I think that's the essential part of their character. They're extroverts who wish to come on the show. I mean you can divide humanity into extroverts and introverts. The extroverts are sometimes vilified for being extroverts. They're the people who want to perform, want to be President of the Union, want to take part in plays, people who think they've got something to project to the world, for whatever reason. They're that sort.
You mentioned that 'Big Brother' was a 'comedy of manners'. Do you see it as having a place in a larger history of entertainment?
Yes, there are various traditional elements to it. One is that it has a natural sort of narrative to it, like a soap, because it does, in the end, end with a winner. It's also like any classic theatrical entertainment from the past in that you make an emotional investment in characters, and you like them and you hate them. Some are pantomime villains, some are pantomime heroes, and as much as people do with soap operas now, so people did with pantomimes years ago. So there's no particular secret, it just happens to have real people rather than actors playing a part in it. But they're still in a sense playing a part they're playing themselves.
In a sense it's a popularity contest. It's quite revealing about society. It's the case that the three people who are there at the end in the final week have essentially won the popularity contest, in that they've not been thrown out. And in the first two series of 'Big Brother', one of them was gay and one of them was of ethnic origin. The majority of people who vote are probably aged between 12 and 25. And they have a much less homophobic, racist attitude than we are sometimes told about the society we live in. So it is quite a mirror that it holds up to society. And of course some of the things I've just described that don't worry me in the least (since I'm a libertarian by nature) utterly appal some people.
Why do you think there is this thirst for reality television? Does it point to broader sociological or psychological issues?
Well, my business is primarily driven by creating hits. And we create hits by capturing the emotions of our viewers. By engaging their emotions. That's how we do it. I'm pleased that there's a variety of British television. I'm pleased that lots of political programs get made that get small audiences. But the big money, and the big prize, is to capture as many people's emotions as possible. Not their intellects, but their emotions. That's why a large number of people watch soap operas.
So I wouldn't ever want to try to elevate the whole thing as being primarily inspired by some desire to have a social experiment or a sociological investigation or anything like that. That isn't the primary motive. But as a by-product, it is incredibly revealing about the attitudes of young people, and revealing about aspects of society today.
Do you have long legal contracts with your contestants?
Well, they're not that lengthy, but they have to be pretty clear about what the contestants are getting into. And we also screen the candidates very carefully. Every year there are some people that we're quite interested in putting in who the psychs tell us, 'No, don't put them in. We don't think they're robust enough. We think they've got too many traumatic events in their past.' There are people who are weeded out by that process.
Do you have onset psychologists?
Yes, there's a counsellor who talks to them whenever they want to talk. He talks to them before they go in, and he talks to them when they come out again. On the whole, the record of that has been not bad, really.
Do you see 'Big Brother' as some kind of therapy for the people who take part?
Yes, it's something that they need to do.
What do you think about the furore surrounding the new American reality show where a poor, impoverished family is taken from the rural South and relocated in a Beverly Hills mansion?
Oh what a compelling idea! People like to make an issue of these things. I mean, quite frankly it's rather fun for the people involved, I suspect, and quite interesting to watch. I wouldn't condemn it out of hand, personally. I mean, there are only about four stories that humanity has ever told itself, and that one's Cinderella, isn't it? Right down to the pumpkin, I imagine, at the end of the series. These are age-old themes. And, after all, what are we doing but telling ourselves stories as we have always done? We love stories. We love narratives. That's really what our jobs are about.
So what can we expect next from Endemol?
Have you caught our latest production, 'The Salon'?
I haven't, no.
My dear boy, you should be watching it! I've got it on my desk now. We've built a hairdressing salon in a warehouse in Balham, and we stream the events in the salon on E4 everyday for, I don't know, 15 hours, and every night at six pm the highlights of the day in the salon will go on Channel 4, and it's working! It's only been going about two weeks and it's working.
Is there any kind of structure to it?
What people have got into are the staff, and the relationships between the staff. That's what they've got into. It's faintly bizarre, I have to say!
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