Time to Go, Big Brother

The social experiment that began with 12 ordinary young Australians entering a compound in 2001 is now a shadow of its former self. When it first launched in Australia nobody knew what to expect--contestants, viewers, network or producers. And therein lay the charm.

Since then, over 150 other Aussies have been housemates, intruders, guests, celebrities and short-term residents of the Dreamworld house. Over time the audience has grown more cynical and pushed the premise out of shape. When a show that was designed to lock away its residents from the world keeps bringing in celebrities (Pamela Anderson, Carson Kressley, etc) clearly it is no longer the same animal.

But is that a fair analogy? How do you keep reinventing a format that relies on its participants being guinea pigs when they have seen previous series?

The original voice and Executive Producer of the Australian series (2001 - 2003), Peter Abbott, isn't surprised the show has reached its natural conclusion.

"The sadness for me is not around the loss of the show," he said. "It's around two things: it's a huge crew--the economic impact of it dying is significant. It's proven to be a great training ground for people who go on into the industry.

"And in terms of its scope, ambition and complexity it will be a very long time before we see the courage to commission something that ambitious again."

Since the show landed in 2001 commercial television has been smothered by reality juggernauts, most of which involve the audience eliminating a contestant every week. Abbott believes Big Brother has made people re-think what works on television.

"It's made people re-think narrative. It's made some people re-think the nature of the way drama works in real life. As opposed to the way it works in the conventions of scriptwriting."

Big Brother's themes of peer group pressure, sex, self esteem, homosexuality, binge drinking (which some would say it encouraged), bullying, eating disorders and racism have ignited debate amongst the audience and commentators.

"It's been a powerful catalyst rather more than a force, I think," Abbott said.

Abbott is renowned for remaining tight-lipped over subsequent seasons. It is a measure of the man that he doesn't deride the show he left behind.

"All those who sit back in the sidelines and say 'that doesn't work,' I think it's fair to say 'Well what would you do?' And then the decision becomes much more complicated.

"I'm not a big fan of peanut galleries. That's why I'm very prudent about anything I would say," he said. "Because you've got to be there, you've got to be doing it, you've got to know what you're working with before you can make any qualified statement about what should or shouldn't happen."

In its first year the show was a cultural phenomenon. Fans across the country were wearing bunny ears, pyjamas and doing the "Sara-Marie" bum dance. Everyone was talking about that "doona dance" for Peter & Christina. Sara-Marie Fedele even returned for Celebrity Big Brother a year later.

But over time the audience became wiser to the "game" and strategies of the series, as did those putting their hand up to participate.

"You can't find those housemates anymore," Abbott acknowledged.

"Particularly for me the first and the third (series) had a level of authenticity I was happy with. The second caught me off guard. To paraphrase, we weren't playing the same game anymore. We had to go to greater lengths to get the housemates to disengage from the real world. And the further the series has gone the harder and harder that's become. And therefore when people say 'it's not like it used to be', it can't be."

These days Abbott is busy producing Top Gear: Australia, Dancing with the Stars, Missing Persons Unit, The Nest and Outback Wildlife Rescue. But he looks back on Big Brother with respect and humility.

"I'm personally indebted to the experience, humbled by the circumstances in life that lead you into those wonderful situations where you get to make shows like that.

"If you can look back at your life and say there were two or three shows that really popped in your life that's probably a pretty good damned record."

Big Brother finale airs 7pm Monday July 21 on TEN.

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