26 April 2001

This is an instalment of a regular commentary of Big Brother from Dr Toni Johnson-Woods, Lecturer in Contemporary Studies, The University of Queensland.

Thursday, April 26, 2001

Big Brother started last night with all the glamour and glitz of a movie premier. Yet, these unknowns had already adopted the "star" mentality, they waved to the crowd and the crowd chanted back at them. That's what the contestants told us they signed up for-fame not money. Television meets Hollywood.

Big Brother is not a sociological experiment like The 1900 House, it is a reality game show. The reality is that it has about as much to do with "reality" as a wedding has to do with marriage. But it is Australian and it will tell us something about contemporary culture.

Australia had its first taste of fly-on-the-wall programming with Sylvania Waters (1992). But Big Brother has gone two steps forward: not only are the contestants under scrutiny 24 hours per day, they are also backed by a huge media blitz. The successful hype attracted 44% of television viewers on Wednesday night. The web site attracted over a million visitors in the first day-who'da thunk it? Not the technicians anyway. Clearly we are a virtual nation.

What are Aussies watching at the Internet site? People showering it seems. In the chat rooms, highly skilled male technocrats (there were no females there when I entered, or at least none with female names) chatted about how to get the closest view of Andy (female) in the shower. So clearly, Big Brother has a technological peer training benefit. Website visitors can also read the latest news, read bios and post emails about the show. While the majority of the emails focused on the sexual preferences of the contestants, some of them started sensational rumours. Another language is emerging as poor grammar, bad typing and questionable spelling demonstrate that the Internet is unlikely to improve standard English writing skills. I wonder who is watching the watchers?

Do the contestants represent a cross section of "typical" Australians? Well we are a young nation it would seem-34 is the top age and for some reason having such an oldie upsets many of the young emailers. They all appear to be Anglo-Celts/Saxons. Surprisingly to me, most of them seem to be vegetarians-with a penchant for alcohol. Generally, they are a caring lot if Andy's eye "injury" and Jemma's sprained arm are anything to go by. Anzac Day was commemorated with biccies and a minute's silence. Their simple discussion of the Anzacs and the futility of war succinctly examined one of our most important myths. And probably said it all, swearing included.

Perhaps one of the attractions is watching ordinary people discussing important issues (Anzac Day and homosexuality so far) naturalistically. The lack of script is a big plus in these instances. . According to the Big Brother web site, the two most popular are Blair and Jemma. Blair is a typical Aussie bloke, his carefully constructed video showed him with his family, and oh, he's into footy-which can't be bad. Jemma is attractive and well-liked by everyone. The two least favourite are Peter and Gordon; Peter is a wine buff and Gordon is an architect.

There seems to be general agreement that "Randy Andy" and "Drumming Todd" are the most controversial-love ?em or hate ?em. Andy looks good on paper (even though she wasn't born in Australia), a Princeton graduate with a distaste for waste and capitalism. She plans to spend her winnings on plastic surgery-obviously she doesn't have a problem with consumerism. Men love to watch her and women find her histrionics aggravating. Well ladies, vote her out! Todd appears to be the most alternative guy, but his drums and penchant for single-handedly killing the other contestants (axe chopping and indiscriminate throwing) drove first-night viewers crazy. My 12 year-old expert informs me Todd that is disruptive, and well he should know.

Contestants should be wary because being too individual is a crime. Remember that Big Brother is about conformity (shades of George Orwell's 1984).

Everyone wants to know why are people watching it? At the moment it's in response to the media hype. This indicates how influencing the media are (as if we didn't know); but as more people discuss it others will watch, if only to find out what their friends are talking about. As any anthropologist knows, gossip plays an important role in creating a cohesive group and 16-25 year olds will want to be "in".

So far the nightly shows have been as exciting as watching paint dry. This may be because a half-hour show means too much editing; it fails to flesh out the characters. But I suspect it's because nothing "dramatic" or "emotional" has happened. Certainly watching the 24-hour Internet coverage gives viewers a different (and addictive) experience of the people in the house. You can be watching a video cam, see something happen, and emails will flash back and forth as everyone discusses what's going on. It creates a virtual community. The Internet coverage gives viewers more insight into the contestants' personalities. But it isn't about them, it's about the stories the editors and directors will construct over time. And in those stories will we find a narration of the nation?

Dr Toni Johnson-Woods

The complete set of commentaries is available at http://www.uq.edu.au/news/bigbrother