Media Forum: Is BB an advertising liability?

Is Big Brother still an attractive proposition for advertisers, Alasdair Reid asks.

We're all postmodern these days. Have been for ages, actually. We abhor value judgments, and we take our cultural reference points from a vast spectrum of sources, which we interchange on an almost daily basis. We love shifting sands, hate the inflexible inconvenience of absolutes. More than anything, we enjoy an in-joke.

And as such, our television channel of choice is Channel 4. How could you not love a channel that, when faced with critics angry that it has sold out to trashy reality TV, thus betraying its heritage of distinctive quality programming, goes and commissions a reality TV show set on a rubbish dump? No, really. Ten contestants will live on a tip for three weeks in a show called, naturally, Dumped.

What better response could there have been, in particular, to the furore created by the bullying and alleged racism back in January on Celebrity Big Brother? And obviously, this corner has to be defended because Channel 4 is now synonymous with the Endemol-created Big Brother franchise.

To humourless critics, Big Brother, with participants selected for their combination of extrovert inhibition and acute mental fragility, is the modern equivalent of the daily freak show, when paying customers were given admission to the viewing galleries at Bedlam Hospital (an entertainment banned by meddling busybodies in 1815).

Thankfully, those critics remain in the minority - but one advertiser has no sense of postmodern humour whatsoever, because it has pulled the plug. Carphone Warehouse, a sponsor of the franchise for the past three years, announced last week that it has decided to sever all ties with the programme. Big Brother, if you like, meets Dumped.

Is this the beginning of the end for Big Brother as an attractive proposition for advertisers? By no means, Laurence Munday, the founding partner of Drum PHD, responds. He says: "I think there's still life in Big Brother. Channel 4 might have to look at a number of issues, though. It might also look at how the sponsorship is sold long term - whether or not, for instance, it continues to sell it to one single advertiser. It may also ask Endemol to look at ways it can resurrect the more positive values that used to be attached to Big Brother."

If Channel 4 does have any sway over Endemol, that is. According to insiders, there's little doubt about who is the bully in that particular relationship.

Steve Huddleston is the head of media at BT, sponsor of another (Endemol-made) Channel 4 game show, Deal Or No Deal, where the bullying (Noel Edmonds-style) is rather more bearded and woolly. He believes the underlying value of the property is unchanged. He adds: "The whole business had far wider coverage, of course, because of the people involved, but the main charge in January was about bullying. Yet bullying, if you watch it regularly, is what Big Brother is all about. I obviously can't comment on any decisions Carphone Warehouse has taken - but I don't think anything has really changed from that point of view in terms of the attractiveness of the programme. And, of course, Channel 4 can't do without it. In some respects, the programme is the channel: strip out Big Brother and its numbers start to look ordinary."

Yes, Tim Brady, a managing partner of ZenithOptimedia, concedes, but you can't pretend the international media furore didn't happen back in January: "The racism and general bullying was a very negative story. Carphone Warehouse obviously couldn't take the risk of being the sponsor if it happened again. And if there's no prospect of it happening again, hasn't Big Brother become a shadow of its former self? So some advertisers might be wary - especially as the sponsorship has become such a big ticket item. But it is a difficult one to measure. There are some advertisers prepared to take more risks than others - and there are lots of exciting things you can do with this in terms of off-air opportunities. So I am sure there will be people looking at it."

They will, Pete Edwards, the founder of Edwards Groom Saunders, agrees. "You can understand why Carphone Warehouse might want to dissociate itself from the programme given what happened. But if you want to increase awareness swiftly, Big Brother remains a fabulous opportunity, whether or not it's at the peak of its viewing appeal - and it's still delivering relative to the other comparable shows out there during the summer. It depends entirely on what your advertising objectives are," he concludes.

NO - Laurence Munday, founding partner, Drum PHD

"It carries a bit of negative baggage after the publicity it attracted in January. But Big Brother still attracts an audience and it develops a lot of column inches in the weeklies aimed at a younger audience; that coverage isn't always scandalous."

NO - Steve Huddleston, head of media, BT

"The main charge against Celebrity Big Brother was about bullying. If you watch the show, you'd know nothing much different happened. I don't think much has changed where its attractiveness to advertisers is concerned."

MAYBE - Tim Brady, managing partner, ZenithOptimedia

"For it to keep its audience, it has to be on the edge all the time. Now, there will be all sorts of extra guidelines in place. So if you were already starting to suspect Big Brother had run its course, this might confirm that suspicion."

NO - Pete Edwards, founder, Edwards Groom Saunders

"The audience watches because it wants sensation. As long as it is compelling viewing, I don't think it matters too much whether or not the coverage is negative or positive. So I reckon it still has life in it yet."

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