JOHANNESBURG — The South African version of “Big Brother,” seen by some here as a social experiment in the post-apartheid era, is a runaway success for pay television channel M-Net.
But far from “rattling racial preconceptions” as producers had predicted, the show has been dominated by the type of incidents that have glued viewers to their TVs around the world — in this case it’s the antics of bad-guy Bradford Wood who threatened to kick a dog if it was introduced into the house.
Producers kept the dog safe on the outside, and a gleeful local press dug up allegations about Wood’s criminal record for fraud.
The 12 contestants — six whites, three blacks and three people of mixed-race origin — entered the house in a Johannesburg suburb on Aug. 26.
As in other countries, the housemates are filmed continuously for television and the Internet. Viewers will vote on who should be kicked out of the house, and the winner after 106 days will scoop 1 million rand ($120,000).
“There has been phenomenal interest in ‘Big Brother,’ three to five times bigger than we had expected,” says Carl Fischer, M-Net’s man in charge of the program who must justify the $2.87 million bill for the program.
Advertising interest has been greater than for the 1995 Rugby World Cup, “which was our pre-bookings record,” Fischer notes.
And while television ratings will not be available until Sept. 15, Internet interest alone indicates M-Net has backed a winner. According to Fischer, some 32 million Internet page views were registered in the show’s first week, equal to a new user every 3 seconds.
“At one point there were 80,000 users on the site, using up half the country’s entire bandwidth,” he says.
As a result, Internet services slowed considerably, forcing a major service provider to apologize to subscribers.
Richard Thornton, an anthropology lecturer at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand U., says Big Brother “will tell us who we are, if we let it. It puts South African culture on display. This is not the ‘high’ culture of arts and literature, but the culture of the everyday moment.”
However, Fischer is not so sure that events inside the house are really a signpost to South Africa’s state of race relations. “It’s a sitcom, a drama and, in the end, just a game,” he says.