Why we should all be looking at Channel 4's Big Brother closely

The Sun beat me to it this week with the jaw-dropping statistic of the moment: 10m people are expected to vote in the 'Big Brother' final tomorrow; 10.7m people voted for Tony Blair in the last election, writes Claire Beale.

For those of you who are not 'BB' fans, this statistic will confirm your worst fears about the disintegration of social values. For those of you who are 'BB' fans it will... well, confirm your worst fears about the disintegration of social values.

OK, so some of BB's 10m will undoubtedly include a fair few multiple voters with their finger glued to the redial button. But the fact that the BB candy floss has again stirred up the nation's passions is proof of the power of reality TV, the lure of the 24-hour opportunity-to-view and the social Sellotape of the shared TV experience. It's also proof that a lot of the rest of the stuff on TV consistently fails to spark any real interest or commitment from viewers.

All of which adds up to many a wasted hour for those of us shamelessly hooked. But for Channel 4 and the show's sponsor, O2, it also adds up to quite a nice little earner in this summer of commercial discontent. While traditional TV ad revenues are depressed, the millions more pennies from 'BB' telephone voting addicts are a welcome copper lining. For O2, the show has helped contribute to better-than-expected revenues from data messaging, notching up 6.6m premium text messages.

Yet BB is not just about TV, mobile and the internet; the book, the video and numerous cross-promotional deals with other media make this a textbook multi-media experience. So perhaps there's something in this modest and parochial success story that the mighty AOL Time Warner could learn from as it tries once again to make sense of its disparate media interests.

The departure last week of the media conglomerate's chief operating officer, Robert Pittman, has been seen as a retreat from the convergence theory that drove the original AOL and Time Warner merger. Pittman came from the new-media stable and he is being replaced by Time Warner (traditional media) stalwarts. And despite the recent statement of intent about cooperation between the different media divisions, the days of a universal strategy for commercial synergy are way off. A couple of ad hoc, client-driven cross-media deals are all there is to illustrate the commercial logic behind the merger.

Sure, 'Big Brother' is a mini-triumph compared with the mammoth task facing AOL Time Warner as it tries to draw together numerous autonomous international companies. But there are two universal truths which apply: compelling content will translate across media; and an advertising recession is no time to protect individual commercial fiefdoms at the expense of group commercial gain.

Anyway, sod 'Big Brother' and its 70 grand: Alex for PM.

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