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January 22, 2007

Harry Phibbs asks, how can the producers of Celebrity Big Brother find celebrities that are so obscure that a gossip columnist has never heard of them?

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Harry Phibbs works for a gossip column. Yet even he had never heard of some of the celebrities on this year's Celebrity Big Brother. Harry Phibbs considers this remarkable achievement by the programme's producers.

The historian Andrew Roberts told me in 2000 during the first series of Big Brother:

They should just have it for this year. Then we would be able to look back on 2000 as the year when there was Big Brother on the screens.
Some hope. Seven years on the whole brand has grown into a massive money spinner around the world. One offshoot is Celebrity Big Brother.

Two ghastly concepts - worship of vacuous celebrity and the mundane dreariness of "reality TV" - are brought together.

Few of the "celebrities" were people I had heard of - this is despite the fact that I work on a gossip column. One of them Jade Goody - of whom more later - had graduated into celebrity status after astounding the nation with her ignorance on the regular Big Brother. A sort of grotesque self fulfilling graduation.

When I bumped into Peter Bazalgette of Endemol at a party a few months ago he told me the international following of the TV series continues to grow. He said:

The Balkans is looking very good. It was very important for the United Nations to go and create peace there. As a result they can show Big Brother. In Croatia it is very popular.
God save us all.

In recent days the incendiary ingredient of racism has caused the ratings to soar and comment on the show to spread to the broadsheets and middle market tabloid newspapers instead of just the down market red tops. The row overshadowed Gordon Brown's visit to India and was raised at Prime Minister Question Time with an appeal by Tory leader David Cameron to the British people to use the off switch.

Addicts of the series have ample opportunity to indulge their habit. Have a look at the Channel 4 listings - Big Brother programming comes to three hours a day. For many this is deficient - but don't worry the Channel 4 website allows a live feed 24/7.

There has been a muddled response from Channel 4 and the programme makers Endemol to the widespread complaint that broadcasting this programme means pumping bigotry into the nations living rooms. Sometimes they say it is anti-racist because it is "shining a light" and exposing the existence of a widespread problem we might like to pretend doesn't exist. Sometimes they say that the comments broadcast aren't racist. Sometimes they just refuse to comment.

Most of us are cynical enough to believe that they are privately delighted the row has been pushing up ratings and thus any moral justification for broadcasting is phony. On the other hand there is probably some genuine anxiety about the Channel 4 brand being tarnished. There was an austere tone in the broadcast when Jade Goody was voted out of the Big Brother house by text messaging viewers.

Yet what do they expect? The whole point of Jade Goody is her crass ignorance. That is her unique selling point. For instance during the current series she asked:

Why don't Eskimos become ice cubes in the cold weather?
The more ignorant and loutish the contestants the greater the ratio of viewers who will be able to feel good about themselves for being better than those on the screen.

It should be recognised that however limited the programme will inherently be in its contribution to cultural and intellectual development the choice of guests makes it even worse. A determined professional exertion is clearly put into reaching the lowest common denominator. Apparently this does not always happen with the overseas spin offs of the show, where high minded conversations about philosophy and literature have been known to take place and survive the editing process to be screened. The output on screen - racism, ignorance, loutishness bullying and all - is the inevitable calculated result of the input of the contestants chosen.

I have been fortunate in the rather limited viewing that I have engaged in over the years of Big Brother to have chanced upon a couple of highlights. In the first series I was watching when "Nasty" Nick Bateman was exposed for duplicity in attempting to influence the nominations for eviction which fellow house mates made. The vulgar topic was not supposed to be discussed at all.

Then there was the more recent occasion last year, in Celebrity Big Brother, when the Respect MP George Galloway did a disturbingly good impression of a cat.

Should Big Brother be banned? It should certainly be taken off Channel 4. Even in these days of extra channels being widely available it is still an immense privilege to be granted a licence for a terrestrial channel. And also a highly lucrative one. Channel 4 is supposed to make us more cultivated in return for this. Do they succeed at the moment? You decide.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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