When there is so much bad news around, it is great to get some good news once in a while. And it doesn't get much better than to learn that the show which has offered the global village the scrapings of the entertainment barrel for so long will no longer be disgracing our small screens in Australia. The Ten Network has just announced that Big Brother will not run next year. The last episode of the current series aired this week.
Although this decision is eight years overdue, I can hear the popping of champagne corks all around the country. Millions of Australians will be able to sleep better at night, knowing this trash is no longer contaminating our airwaves. The 1316 episodes of the show were certainly 1316 episodes too many. Big Brothel — as it should rightly be called — was arguably one of the worst shows ever to air on Australian television. It was one big excuse for voyeurism, gratuitous sex and the exploitation of young people — all so that the fat cats at the Ten Network could line their pockets. Its producers were always happy to aim for the gutter, and the gutter is where it stayed.
The first BB appeared in the Netherlands in 1999. It ran for four seasons, but was then cancelled due to poor ratings (boring characters, lack of ideas). Two more seasons were tried in 2005 and 2006, but they too came to an unlamented end. It still enjoys some success in other parts of the world. Ratings had been going down for years — since day one, truth be told — but the corpse of BB had to keep being ventilated and trundled out for the sake of its few devotees.
Although known as a version of “reality TV”, it never had anything to do with reality. Just where in the real world do hormonally-charged young people live in cramped quarters, with communal beds and showers, plied with all the free alcohol they can consume? This totally artificial environment was always designed to bring out the worst in young people, and to show off as much flesh and debauchery as possible.
Of course, BB is not the only sleaze show to air on television in the past decade. There have been plenty of other contenders for the worst show of the year, but BB excelled in pushing all the wrong buttons, all in the name of ratings and revenue. And since RR rules in television, don't expect things to get any better in the future. While the removal of BB in Australia ranks up there with the invention of penicillin and deep dish pizzas, the Ten Network has already said it will introduce a similar "reality" show in 2010.
Oh, I know what the champions of filth say: ‘If you don't like it, don't watch it.’ But that totally misses the point. To put it crudely, crap matters. If enough sewage is pumped into our homes in prime time, some of it will stick to those in the line of fire. And those who don't watch it will still have to live with those who do. The more immoral, perverted and juvenile our entertainment tastes become, the more that will filter through to the entire community.
It's like passive smoking: non-smokers still pay a price for what smokers do. And rubbishy shows can dumb down and pollute a whole generation. The worrying thing is, as the shock value wears off, the networks then look for something even more shocking, more offensive, and more disgusting.
In the past, boycotts of offensive shows have proven to be effective. Targeting the advertisers of sleazy shows has cut the number of sponsors, and with it, advertising revenue. A number of shows have been pulled off the air over the years using this technique.
Undoubtedly it will need to be used again. Sure, simply turning off the telly is one part of the solution. But those concerned about decent programming will have to get more involved and active in sharing their concerns when the need arises. Remaining silent helps no one. The free-to-air networks have an obligation not to pump toxic television into our homes on a daily basis. And we have an obligation to speak out when standards decline too far, and the boundaries are pushed too widely. If we do not speak out, things will only get worse.
So enjoy the champagne over this particular win, but expect more heated battles in the future.
Bill Muehlenberg is the Secretary of the Family Council of Victoria, Australia, and a lecturer in ethics at several Melbourne theological colleges.