Fifty years on, a very different kind of domestic set-up has been doing similar things for the internet. Not just the internet, actually - all forms of digital interactivity. It all started one summer afternoon in 2000, when whole offices ground to a halt as people gathered round computer screens to get the latest information on the Nasty Nick eviction. And failed, obviously, as the Channel 4 site went down under the sheer weight of traffic. Which was academic as it turned out - because a Channel 4 producer had already pulled the plug, fearing that the revelations would cause riots in the streets.
Whatever. It was a big factor in persuading non-propeller heads about the possibilities of this internet thing. And Channel 4 has continued to make interactivity a core part of the Big Brother experience - which not only helps keep us hooked but also opens up promising new revenue streams.
Last year, for example, an interactive television capability was added to the package - and a staggering 30 per cent of voting (about five million out of 16 million total votes cast) was conducted directly via TV remotes.
Interactive TV platforms (both cable and satellite) will offer all sorts of material including live streaming, highlights and archive footage plus, of course, the ability to vote with your remote. And the website is an impressive mansion of many rooms. Again, there's all sorts of video streaming, from live to archive, plus games, news, e-mail facilities, forums and chat rooms.
This year, the big new addition is mobile. There will be news and gossip text alerts, a Big Brother WAP site, a mobile game, and you will also be able to download ringtones, logos and "I'm watching Big Brother, stupid" voicemail greetings. You will be able to contribute views and opinions to programmes such as E4's Big Brother's Little Brother via texting; and this year for the first time you'll be able to text your eviction votes.
This makes it appropriate that the dominant sponsor of the whole property is the mobile communications brand formerly known as BT Cellnet. O2 is the show's exclusive broadcast sponsor on both Channel 4 and E4 and has a clutch of exclusive or exclusive-in-category sponsorship rights across the show's interactive platforms. And it will naturally provide the mobile section in the Big Brother website.
So, all in all, this could be a ground-breaking partnership that we might all be able to learn from. Garrison Macri, the director of brand and marketing services for O2, certainly thinks so. "Big Brother will be a spectacular mix of broadcast and communications services and will set the benchmark for the future convergence of these two industries,
In particular, O2 believes it is setting the pace in introducing a "short code
system that will allow people to register for text services through any UK mobile network - this, it claims, is a turning point for cross-network interactivity.
Laurence Munday, the managing director of Drum PHD, has been involved in constructing the O2 deal. He says that you can't overestimate the role Big Brother plays in pushing the boundaries of what's possible.
"This is, once again, the biggest integrated interactive project ever and it creates incredible interest,
Munday says. "Last year, for instance, while the website was up, it had 159 million page impressions, making it the biggest website in Europe and it was easily the UK's biggest interactive TV property, beating Sky football and BBC Wimbledon. It's an opportunity to understand what elements most appeal to viewers. It's important for broadcasters and advertisers."
Some commentators aren't quite so bullish. They believe, for instance, that the over-inflated text bubble is already ripe for bursting. "The mobile marketing companies say they're very careful to avoid the obvious abuses, such as spamming, and I'm sure Channel 4 in particular can be trusted,
one observer says. "But we've been hearing some worrying things over the past couple of months about text abuse. I know it's unfashionable to say so, but text is of limited use to the ad industry."
Big Brother interactivity isn't just about mobile, of course - but surely there's much to be learned this year about how mobile operates within a big media property like this. Sceptics believe there is little to be learned from the Big Brother phenomenon - precisely because it is unique.
Chris Ketley, the managing director of Zenith Interactive Solutions, disagrees: "This will be a great catalyst. It won't necessarily reach a new market - of the people who will be texting Big Brother most will be the teenage viewers who are heavy users of text anyway. That said, anything that creates a new channel of discussion can only be a good thing where utilising new technology is concerned. Until G3 kicks in, mobile won't be a truly powerful medium but it's great to get further familiarity with mobile. Once people know about it then there is a chance it can grow - these things are all about familiarity."