‘Big Brother’ Is Coming Back to the U.K., but Can It Really Thrive in Today’s Reality Landscape? (Column)

·5-min read

In the words of Davina McCall, “fancy another one”?

Shortly before announcing this year’s winners of “Love Island” on Monday night, U.K. broadcaster ITV2 caused goosebumps as they played out the iconic “Big Brother” theme tune while revealing that the iconic reality show is to return for a six-week run in 2023.

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When you think about it, a “Big Brother” revival makes perfect sense. I mean, the show has been so significant to the history of British television, from redefining what it means to be a celebrity, to giving viewers the power through a public vote, that it hardly needs any introduction at all. Even though it hasn’t been on air for the past four years, after being ditched by Channel 5 in 2018, it’s hardly felt like it’s been off air at all thanks to the online generation frequently sharing memories of their favorite scenes (Craig Phillips telling Nasty Nick “you’re plotting a very dirty plan”) to sharing classic memes (Gemma Collins wearing big sunglasses shouting, “I’m Claustrophobic, Darren!”).

“Big Brother” was axed, too, not because fans had grown tired of the format; they were simply exhausted by how frequently the series was on air. Celebrity and non-celebrity series were left virtually running back-to-back, so that Channel 5’s then-owner media mogul Richard Desmond could have reality show headlines to push his celebrity magazines and tabloid newspapers. And although the new ITV revival has also been tied to the broadcaster’s upcoming streaming service ITVX (which replaces the much-hated ITV Hub), reality shows continue to thrive on broadcast television because they can do something that streaming services such as Netflix still struggle to do when it comes to reality: Create a national conversation about divisive storylines and characters, which is tough to do when all viewers are at different parts of the show.

Yet even though “Big Brother” will have been off British TV screens for just five years, it does face considerable challenges for it to work again on television. And this isn’t down to the public’s appetite; it’s down to changing public attitudes.

Staples that made “Big Brother” such addictive viewing, from providing housemates with considerable alcohol to airing full blown arguments with minimal intervention, now wouldn’t be able to happen. When E4 decided to repeat classic episodes of “Big Brother” to celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary, the channel ended up having to awkwardly cut some scenes out. Even though Channel 4 had no issue showing these scenes when they originally aired, viewers now would find them uncomfortable and unjustifiable.

Ultimately, contestant mental wellbeing is clearly an issue that viewers care about. You need only look at “Love Island.” This year, Ofcom received 1,500 complaints about “Love Island” over alleged misogyny and more than 2,500 complaints for alleged controlling behaviour following events at Casa Amor. Just last year, an explosive row between two “Love Island” contestants resulted in more than 25,000 complaints, the second highest number of complaints the regulator had the entire year.

“Big Brother” has been accused of portraying housemates in an unflattering light over the years. There have also been concerns about the mental health issues that contestants face thanks to the overnight success that comes with being on such shows, complicated by dealing with a public that might have a very different opinion of them than they have of themselves.

And while these are challenges that many reality shows face, “Big Brother” is unique in the fact that it thrived on that tension. It thrived on providing a claustrophobic environment to stir up arguments, from limiting food supplies while cutting housemates off from the public until eviction night or after they leave. How will “Big Brother” get the balance right between airing a show that reflects 2022 and retaining the elements that made it such a success in the first place?

The revival also makes you wonder who, exactly, this new series of “Big Brother” is for. While “Big Brother” on ITV2 certainly fits the channel’s target demographic, it feels quite surreal for this show to be announced in the middle of an episode of “Love Island.” These shows are polar opposites of each other. “Big Brother” is raw and honest. “Love Island” is overly polished and aspirational to the point where you can feel inadequate when comparing yourself to the contestants.

It makes you wonder, will the producers try to take “Big Brother” back to its ‘social experiment’ roots, bringing in relatable public characters that you feel like you’ve already met? Will it try to bring in larger-than-life characters, who desperately want to be famous, very much like the show’s heyday? Or will it try to tap into the current generation of contestants who simply use reality shows as a vehicle to score brand deals on Instagram or TikTok?

A press statement said that future “Big Brother” contestants from “all walks of life” will be taking part and that the reboot will have “a brand new look and some additional twists that speak to today’s audience,” but it all feels rather vague, and makes you wonder whether the future of reality is actually the past.

Now, if you leave me I’m going to search for my favourite Gemma Collins “Big Brother” moments again. As I’m finishing this article, I’ll use her words. “Get that fire exit door. I’m off.

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