Media Forum: Is there life in Big Brother?

Now in its ninth series, is the show still a hot property, Alasdair Reid asks.

Here we go again. Big Brother is with us once more - though if you're outside of its core target audience, you could be forgiven for being only vaguely aware of this fact. True, it's a special year for the show. In its ninth year, it is now arguably older than the apparent mental age of its participants.

But, somehow, there's a feeling that all of the routinely induced Big Brother hoopla (the pre-launch tease stuff in the TV pages about the character defects and sexual proclivities of the housemates; then the mini tabloid feeding frenzy when their identities are finally revealed) is less compelling than ever before.

Only natural, after all. Big Brother is as familiar a part of the domestic summer scene as a weather-beaten patio-furniture set from B&Q - and tiredness will eventually set in at even the most fondly regarded of media institutions. If the youth demographic can start arguing that Glastonbury has had its day, then the same can certainly happen to an even less well-established perennial like Big Brother.

Especially as the show has taken something of a critical battering over the past couple of years - and in the wake of the Shilpa Shetty/Jade Goody racism row in 2007 on Celebrity Big Brother, it's not exactly universally well-regarded.

Channel 4 is, as usual, promising to spice things up for us and will be making "punishment" a special theme this year - though whose punishment they're referring to has yet to be revealed. Not ours, as viewers, we sincerely hope.

It's also doing more to integrate the show (though this is hardly rocket science) with social networking phenomena such as Facebook and Bebo.

So, is there life yet in the old patio furniture? As you'd expect, Andy Barnes, the Channel 4 sales director, is a stout defender of the show. He points out, for instance, that if you take the long view, there's absolutely no evidence that its audiences are on the wane. Series seven turned in record viewing figures, so it wasn't exactly a surprise last year's numbers were down.

He says: "It definitely works for Channel 4. It delivers roughly twice the size of any other programme that appears in that time slot. I'll take those numbers any day. And there's a whole raft of people for whom just the music makes them think of summer. They aren't just viewers, they're disciples."

Well, perhaps, Marie Oldham, the head of strategy at MPG, responds. But she can see worrying trends in the numbers. She says: "There is no doubt that Big Brother is powerful TV and it has changed the way we watch and interact with broadcast content. However, while the public relations machine has consistently driven launch-night audiences in the region of six to seven million individuals, this year's launch show averaged 5.1 million, a year-on-year decrease of 23 per cent."

She also questions the demographics: the 16- to 34-year-old audience for the final night of series eight was just 2.1 million and, across the series as a whole, 59 per cent of the audience was older than 35.

Andy Zonfrillo, the investment director at MindShare, is less critical of the show's audience delivery, but believes it now dominates the Channel 4 schedule too much. He explains: "If an advertiser is on air for, say, four weeks, then you find you're repeatedly hitting the same audience. I'd also like to see E4 and E4+1 used more productively. I'd question why you'd need the live feed re-run just an hour on."

And Matt Platts, a managing partner at Vizeum, agrees that Channel 4 has come to focus a disproportionate amount of its creative energies on the show. In the long run, that state of affairs might have its downsides.

He concludes: "It's so dominant in the Channel 4 schedule, especially in the summer, that it absolutely has to perform, so the pressure on Channel 4 to get it right is huge. I think it's realised that it has to do more than merely throw together some people who are a bit weird."

YES - Andy Barnes, sales director, Channel 4

"What else on TV creates so many talking points and is subject to so many double-page spreads in tabloids? For many advertisers, it delivers a perfect audience with such a high concentration of 16- to 34-year-olds."

MAYBE - Marie Oldham, head of strategy, MPG

"Channel 4 has kept the show high-profile and it still drive much-needed ratings. Whether it does anything to enhance the Channel 4 brand and its proposition of youth-oriented, cutting-edge content is another question."

MAYBE - Andy Zonfrillo, investment director, MindShare

"If you suggested taking it off air, there would be an awful lot of people up in arms. So it hasn't run its course, but maybe we'd welcome a reduction in Channel 4's commitment to it."

YES - Matt Platts, managing partner, Vizeum

"It's true that it has become a bit of an institution - but it's still talked-about telly. It's incredibly hard to deliver that these days. So while it's easy to be critical of the show, it's still an incredibly strong brand and it's still important to us and our advertisers."

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