London, Asharq Al Awsat- With the recent controversy over the racism row that has come to light through British reality television show “Celebrity Big Brother”, dubbed the ‘Battle of Britain’ by local papers, it was evident that the overall “big winner” to emerge from the turmoil was the show itself.
The hype ended last Friday with the “booting out” of celebrity contestant Jade Goody, who was largely perceived both locally and internationally as the “villain” for her “racist bullying” of fellow contestant, Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty.
However, controversy usually generates cash; the very reason that television executives incessantly keep watch to spot any issues that could cause controversy and in some instances will work to create them.
So what exactly happened on Celebrity Big Brother?
According to Professor Adrian Monck, head of journalism and publishing at City University in London, “The show has been going on a very long time, perhaps the format is tired… as a result, producers start thinking of ways to keep the controversy going and to keep people talking about it.”
“I am not saying that what happened did not happen, but that the company (Endemol) might have manipulated people,” Professor Monck told Asharq Al Awsat.
“Perhaps the show’s producers decided to emphasize one specific element, bearing in mind that they usually do edit a lot of material before the final product goes on air,” added Monck.
The ultimate goal is for Endemol, which is rumored to be up for sale to say “Our shows can still dominate the press,” Monck concluded.
Undoubtedly, the press and television coverage played a significant role in helping the number of complaints received by the broadcasting regulatory authority ‘Ofcom’ jump from 200 to 40,000 in less than a week, resulting in even more coverage.
It was also this coverage that triggered angry protests in India, which in turn became another angle to cover, almost a year after a similar but more intense scene that was witnessed worldwide of protests against the Danish cartoons that were deemed offensive to Islam.
What certainly gave the entire issue even more prominence is the personal involvement of the British Chancellor of Exchequer Gordon Brown, who happened to be taking part in an official visit to India as the ‘reality television’ crisis broke out. Gordon Brown “juiced up” the story for journalists by transforming the vote against Goody into what seemed to be a national duty, labeling it a vote for “Britain” and “British tolerance.”
British tabloids such as The Sun backed Brown, publishing details of how to vote and calling upon its huge base of readers to vote against the “Face of Hate” (Goody) on its front-page. Meanwhile, international news networks such as CNN had designated reporters to follow up on the issue. CNN reported on the updates almost on an hourly basis.
As for the results, while it is true that Jade was evicted, she certainly became more famous with all the exposure that she had received recently (Jade attained celebrity status following her participation in the non-celebrity version of Big Brother in 2002 and her actions in the house at that time). There is the possibility that she may capitalize on the situation to further increase her 8 million GBP fortune.
Shilpa Shetty – previously unknown in the UK despite her ‘acting goddess’ status in India – gained instant and unexpected popularity, however the ultimate prize came in the form of additional viewers for Channel 4 that took place over night. Viewership rose to 5.7m by Thursday, the Guardian reported. However, Channel 4 lost a 3 million GBP sponsorship deal for the show withdrawn by the mobile phone retailer ‘Carphone Warehouse’. In addition, the British television network stated that it would donate profits generated from the votes of last Friday’s “eviction show” to charities nominated by the celebrity contestants.
In the meantime, Endemol saw an increase in stock prices throughout last week, another important factor to those who were skeptical… ‘Big Brother’ is defiantly ‘big’ once again.
Yet, there is one element that remains to be discussed. If all or most of what occurred was indeed orchestrated, at what price did the show, which has caused a series of rows all over the world during the past years, regain its image as “king of controversy?”
Reports spoke of special procedures arranged for Jade’s departure of the show last Friday to insure her protection from potential angry fans of the show, but will she ever be safe from a possible retaliation? This is a question that only time and her future will answer.
Also, what if the row caused fatalities and physical violence (as was the case in the Danish cartoons crisis last year)? Professor Adrian Monck argues that ‘Big Brother’, just like other reality TV shows, “relies on upsetting people [to gain more viewership].” However, he says that there should be a “calculation” that determines the extent to which to “cause enough offence to get people talking,” but not “enough offence to cause a catastrophic result.” He believes that the outcome of the recent Celebrity Big Brother was indeed “catastrophic.”
When asked to comment, Nikki O’Shea of the Big Brother press office mentioned that no further comment is to be added to the statement given by Andy Duncan, the Chief Executive of Channel 4 last Thursday.
In his statement, Duncan said that it was “a good thing that the program has raised these issues and provoked such a debate.”
He explained that “the reason it (the show) commands so much attention, intentionally or unintentionally, is that it goes to the heart of who we are as individuals and as a society”. He added, “The level of complaint and comment shows that the program has touched a real nerve,” but saying, “These attitudes (referring to Jade), however distasteful, do persist – we need to confront that truth”.
However, Nikki O’Shea, in response to a question asking if the scenes that many people considered sensitive or racial should have been omitted, said:
‘It is often necessary as part of the ongoing story of Big Brother to include incidents where housemates are angry or upset. We are always careful to ensure such incidents are broadcast at an appropriate time and in accordance with our obligations under the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.”
The latest chapter of the Celebrity Big Brother race row will see Channel 4 bosses meet to discuss the future of the popular reality TV show.
In all cases and no matter if the publicity was the work of a marketing genius or not, the recent row over Big Brother has proved once again that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
* Asharq Al Awsat’s Media Editor