Big Brother: Reality TV in the Twenty-First Century by J. Bignell

By J. Bignell

Jonathan Bignell offers a wide-ranging research of the tv phenomenon of the early twenty-first century: truth television. He explores its cultural and political meanings, explains the genesis of the shape and its courting to modern tv creation, and considers the way it connects with, and breaks clear of, real and fictional conventions in tv.

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Wife Swap is a suitable location to consider whether Reality TV might enact the end of (masculine) documentary at the same time as it participates in the transformation of documentary into (feminine) lifestyle programming. The function of arguing that Reality TV has put an end to something that came before it is to establish a sense of historical progression and to stabilize the thing that Reality TV is being contrasted with. As part of the same process, contrasting Reality TV to the tradition that goes before also has the function of drawing boundaries or giving a focus to the sense of what Reality TV itself is.

Institutionally, the synergy between the separated realms of hardware manufacturing, content providers and transmission or broadcasting corporations appears to provide market dominance to a few major companies, mainly American and Japanese (like Time-Warner or Sony), so that the assumption that globalization is the same as Americanization has been modified to stress the power of corporate, rather than national, control over media. Big Brother Africa ran for 106 days and was broadcast across Africa in 2003, drawing an audience of over 30 million (about two-thirds of the continent’s 900 million population saw the programme in total).

Its director of programmes, Stephen Lambert, was trained as a documentary producer at BBC and made the critically acclaimed documentary series Modern Times for BBC2. RDF is the second largest independent production company in Britain, with an annual turnover of £53 million. The genesis of the series was at a creative meeting at RDF’s headquarters, as Lambert explained: ‘We were looking at an article in the Daily Mail about how a nurse on £15,000 lived, compared with a barrister on £200,000. ’ (Brown 2004a: 10).

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