Too Much Reality Big Brother Is Watching You Watching Big Brother
The 10th season of the German version of "Big Brother" starts on Jan. 11. Although the original format is being followed less and less, the show has done more than just revolutionize television. Nowadays, everything and everyone is under constant observation.
It seemed that it had finally been conclusively demonstrated that television was indeed causing the inevitable decline of Western culture. The prominent German politician Kurt Beck called for a boycott, while then-Interior Minister Otto Schily compared the new show to the highly controversial practice of dwarf tossing. A succession of critics and media moralists lined up to voice their indignation at the barbarism on display.
That was back in 2000, the year the reality show "Big Brother" first hit German screens.
Naturally, the clever inventor of "Big Brother," Dutch TV producer John de Mol, did absolutely nothing to contradict the impression many had that commercial television could go even further down the scale of poor taste. He even ruminated publicly over the idea of creating a show in which 10 people would be placed into an airplane that was about to crash -- with nine parachutes.
Next Monday marks the beginning of the 10th season of the voyeuristic show in Germany, which, despite many changes to both the living containers and the rules, is hardly likely to upset anyone any more. Nevertheless, "Big Brother" has rung in a new era of television, media and the way we perceive ourselves and other people.
The TV show did not become any worse, but the virtual container grew larger and larger. Nowadays it encompasses virtually everything and everyone. And once a contestant is in, there is no escape -- but it also appears that hardly anyone wants to get out. Anyone can sit in his or her own little container at home, simply by allowing the world, via the Internet, to actively participate in his or her daily life.
"Big Brother" has become the perfect metaphor for the changes in the television and media culture of the last 10 years, even though there was never really anything revolutionary about the original show. The ratings didn't break any records, and the mother of all reality shows was also ineffective as a means of producing instant celebrities. Other shows, including "Deutschland Sucht den Superstar" ("Germany Seeks a Superstar"), which is the German franchise of "American Idol" and similar to "Germany's Next Top Model," have been much more reliable in furnishing the tabloids with fresh material every season. And sometimes just one episode of the decades-old game show "Wetten, dass ?" ("Wanna Bet ?") can provide more conversation fodder than an entire season of "Big Brother."
The idea may be obsolete. But as a symbol of nonstop surveillance and the omnipresence of the media, "Big Brother" has attained a status that not even the writer George Orwell, whose novel "1984" inspired the name of the show, could ever have imagined. Today, the things that affected only a few candidates in 2000 have become part of everyday life. We are no longer safe from Webcams, public surveillance and reality TV. Television and the Web are constantly broadcasting the most ordinary and banal things. Anyone can become a celebrity relatively easily, but hardly anyone can distinguish between what is real and what is fiction in the media creations known as "reality" shows.
Internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter, TV casting shows like "America's Got Talent," the amateur journalism of reader-reporters, the video portal YouTube and the sex film portal YouPorn are all part of an ambivalent social development that falls somewhere between total control and complete exhibitionism. Millions upon millions of people take part in, or place their trust in, these media phenomena.
In the Christian philosophy of the late Middle Ages, God and religion controlled everything and everyone. The philosopher Hans Blumenberg used the term "theological absolutism" to describe the phenomenon. If we consider the developments that began with the advent of "Big Brother" and have emerged since then, society has spent the last 10 years heading toward a state that could be described as medial absolutism. Nowadays the media, not unlike God and religion in the past, has become the superior power that dominates everything.
The Internet is largely, but not entirely, responsible for this development. The key criterion is the visibility of everyone, all the time. Before "Big Brother" and the reality shows that followed, the media focused almost entirely on stars and celebrities. For them, chronic visibility was the price they paid for fame -- a fame some would eventually see as a curse.
Nowadays, no one can be completely sure that they are not being watched. Whether someone is photographed on a mobile phone while drunk at Munich's Oktoberfest, is caught by a blogger while picking his nose on the subway or chooses to appear in front of the cameras on a reality TV show, the only thing that matters any more is having a media presence.
Opening Lives to Public Scrutiny
"Nowadays we all live much more public lives," says Helmut Thoma, the former head of the German commercial TV station RTL Television. He is astonished by how willing people are to open their lives to public scrutiny, with hundreds of thousands of people revealing their innermost secrets to the world. "Every little aspect of life is announced via Twitter -- things like going to the dentist or getting a haircut."
One of the people who experienced just how short-lived the new kind of fame is was Zlatko T., one of the stars of the first German series of "Big Brother." Zlatko, an auto mechanic by trade, became famous because he had never heard of Shakespeare, thought "homogeneous" meant a form of homosexuality and picked his nose. The entire country made fun of him. He released a few songs and made a few euros -- and then disappeared again.
The television world is filled with thousands of Zlatkos today. They are the products of reality TV, which turns ordinary people into celebrities and whose popularity shows no signs of flagging. Nowadays, just about anything can be turned into material for reality TV shows. Whether you're opening a snack bar, emigrating to the Netherlands, moving in with your mother, renovating a rundown old house or having trouble paying your debts -- someone somewhere will be prepared to watch you doing it.
"In the past, people looked out the window and waited for something to happen," says Thoma. "Even if it was just a car accident." But today, says Thoma, viewers watch reality TV hoping to see people arguing or having sex. "The revolutionary thing about 'Big Brother' was that you could spy on people without even leaving the house." Today, says Thoma, people just sit in their own little containers, watching other people in their little containers, who are watching other people in turn. The huge public debate about privacy that "Big Brother" sparked when it launched now seems somewhat anachronistic.
A More Exciting Reality
The French director François Truffaut once said that filmmaking is about beautiful women doing beautiful things. Since "Big Brother," making television is about normal people doing normal things. The problem with all this is that normal things eventually become very boring.
The solution, it seems, is to make reality more exciting.
In the summer of 2008, the Dutch public broadcasting network BNN announced a bizarre experiment: A girl named Lisa, who had an incurable illness, would decide which of a group of candidates waiting for a donor kidney would receive her organ. Eventually anchorman Patrick Lodiers revealed that the whole thing was a publicity stunt, and that "Lisa" was actually an actress. But it was too late to stop a wave of indignation, as media outlets from the New York Times to Al-Jazeera sharply criticized the stunt for being in poor taste. BNN responded by saying that the media had knowingly fueled the hype.
Even stunts like this have long been overtaken by reality. In Germany, RTL is already broadcasting so-called "reality" shows that are completely made up -- and which often gain better ratings than true stories taken from real life.
In the 1960s, US historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term "pseudo-event," which he applied to things like press conferences and interviews, which he argued were in fact staged and would not have taken place if there were no newspapers or TV. Journalists, Boorstin said, use the technique to create their own events, because otherwise there wouldn't be enough news worth reporting around the world.
Such concerns seem hopelessly outdated in the current era of hyperreality. Fakes have become an art form on YouTube. And a fictional character like Horst Schlämmer, the creation of the hugely popular German comedian Hape Kerkeling, attracted more attention in Germany's recent election than many real candidates when he "ran" for the position of chancellor. How can a show like "Big Brother" be expected to keep up?
Even the recent casting efforts for what is likely to be the last British container-based reality show appear to be nothing more than an overblown PR event: The producers of the show are currently seeking war veterans who have lost a leg or an arm in Iraq or Afghanistan. Whether the show is real or not, Endemol, the company that originally came up with "Big Brother," has managed to further bolster its reputation for breaking taboos.
"In the past, it would have caused a stir if Zlatko had picked his nose and stuck his finger in his mouth," says Borris Brandt, the former head of Endemol Germany, referring to the star of the first season of Germany's "Big Brother." "Nowadays it really has to be a freak show." But, he adds, it will be virtually impossible to come up with even more shocking scenarios.
The German efforts to inject some new life into the 10th season of "Big Brother" are almost touching. Rumor has it that one of the plans involves setting up two "Big Brother" houses instead of one. Neither of the two groups living in the houses would be aware that the other group exists. After one month, viewers would put together a new group by selecting residents from the two houses.
In other words, not every candidate who believed that he or she had made it into the real "Big Brother" house would remain on the show -- adding yet another layer to the show's "reality."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan