The public as "Big Brother"

BY B.P. Sanjay| IN Media Practice | 21/01/2007
Reality shows represent a genre where several interests, including public opinion and economics, converge.

 B.P. Sanjay

Shilpa Shetty and the UK¿s Big Brother reality show are making headlines in India, largely due to the racist remarks directed to her by a co-participant. The usual discussions and debates are sure to follow and our media panelists will doubtless have the last word. Meanwhile, the show has notched up its rating points aided by the publicity generated from protests in public, political and diplomatic forums. Both the ministries of Information and Broadcasting and the External Affairs of India are seized of the matter.  In the UK, the issue has been addressed in the Parliament, and the prime minister Tony Blair has indicated that racism will not be tolerated. 

This issue is symptomatic of larger media dynamics, particularly television and its new found interest in reality shows. While analysts are ready to write obituaries for the run-of-the-mill serials, the industry is gearing up for participatory reality shows as a new genre. This is programming where the economics of a converged media scenario can be fully exploited with distinct revenue models for telecom operators and media partners who can provide further publicity. Subtly but surely, happenings in television shows are being slotted as news, perhaps even as headlines, like in the present case. We have seen the trials and tribulations of participants in such shows in India; a recent contest where a Kashmiri boy became the Indian Idol has lead to serious analysis about regional dynamics in such shows.  Interestingly, a clone of Big Brother, Big Boss, is already being broadcast on an Indian TV channel.

Shilpa Shetty¿s case is surely going to raise the question of limits in reality shows and who is responsible for setting those limits. Reality for the media implies  showing the good, bad and ugly side of the society. The classical debate about television and violence would have us believe that there has always been violence in society and by depicting violence the medium is merely is acting as a mirror. In the process, it claims to perform a reformist function. Although, there have been very sharp reactions to the Big Brother show, there are some voices that suggest that we need to recognise the racism that exists in our society. Yet, to justify the same when it occurs on a show is perhaps unacceptable, as society would like to set limits for the media.  Akhila, a media activist, has argued that there must be limits to depiction of the ugly side of our reality, adding that, very often, it is the vulnerable sections of the society that become the targets.    

However, this issue like all others would probably become a victim of short public memory until another incident grabs media attention. Indeed, the media seems to act as an archive for establishing continuity in framing the darker side of society. 

It is not clear whether the Big Brother show is scripted; obviously, its  claim of being a reality show would suggest that it is not. Consequently, if the participants are hauled up within the framework of existing laws, their defence would perhaps be another factor in fashioning media laws and the so-called mantra of self-regulation by the media. The threats of sponsors reviewing their commitments to the show, coinciding with the fact that it has added a million viewers, may encourage the media to rake up issues of freedom and censorship.

The issue has also brought the role of the UK media regulator, Ofcom, into focus.  Set up within the framework of the Communications Act 2003, it has six functions. At least three aspects - ensuring plurality, adequate protection for audiences against offensive or harmful material, and unfairness - are  perhaps invoked in this case in the thousands of complaints already registered with the regulator. Ofcom studies the complaints and gives its ruling after getting a response. In the past, complaints of a similar nature have led the regulator to act by way of seeking apology from the channel.  The channels have also taken the plea that the short notice for entering the programme into a play out system  caused such errors and they would take adequate steps to avoid a recurrence.  It would be interesting to see how Channel 4 responds to the complaints against this show; ironically, the public has now become its "Big Brother".

Nevertheless, even if it is a trifle presumptous, there is an underlying feeling about the manufactured dynamics in this episode. Truly, the medium knows how to engage our attention and time. Meanwhile, Shilpa Shetty and the channel are probably having the last laugh.

Postscript: Big Brother has fourteen basic rules for the housemates.   Rule 11 says, "Housemates must not act violently towards any other housemate." Was there a breach of this rule in this case?

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