With reality television now a permanent fixture of the industry, it can be easy to forget what the genre looked like when John De Mol’s pioneering Big Brother launched in 1999 on Dutch commercial channel Veronica. Luckily for us, K7 Media’s non-executive director Gary Carter was instrumental in launching the show and spoke about the experience on the Tellycast podcast recently.
Gary explained how he moved to The Netherlands to work for Endemol, after two years at Planet 24 during which he worked on what became Survivor. As an agent, he had worked with Joop van den Ende Productions, and many of the companies which became part of Endemol at that time.
“People are fundamentally weird”, says Gary of the format’s appeal. The development team worked on the psychological basis that people can only socially mask their personality for a limited time. The longer you watch them, the greater the chance you’ll see their true selves revealed. This is, according to Gary, “the key to reality television”.
However selling a format which reversed the normal way of making television, where you typically film as little as possible to save costs, was an uphill struggle. “Nobody knew what the show was…It was very, very difficult to sell”, says Gary. The original plan for the show to run all year was too much for broadcasters to buy into, so the format was “trimmed back” to a three-month run.
This was enough for Veronica to buy in, with De Mol and the broadcaster originally sharing both the costs and ad revenue. The series debuted at the end of summer, 1999, scheduled so the final episode would have the housemates emerge on the eve of the millennium. One particularly interesting nugget of technical history revealed by Gary is that De Mol was more concerned with sound quality than video. With only fixed surveillance cameras many incidents would happen out of view, so it was more important to clearly hear what housemates were saying than to see them at all times.
Gary also describes the moment he knew the format was a success, when a housemate had toothache and opted to have a dentist enter the house rather than leave the show. Simply seeing someone get a filling on TV caused a spike in viewers, suggesting that audiences were truly fascinated by the most mundane activities when filtered through Big Brother’s unique prism.
Gary also defends against the enduring criticism that the format was – and is – voyeuristic. “All media has an element of voyeurism”, he insists. “These people are aware of what is happening and are participating willingly. Big Brother proves that speculation about other human beings, about their motivations, about their inner life, about their dreams, how authentic they are, is really close to the heart of most people.”
Still one of the world’s most successful reality formats over two decades later, it’s hard to disagree. The world has changed dramatically since those early series, which aired when the internet was in its infancy and social media didn’t exist, but the allure of watching ordinary people interact is as strong as ever.