‘Big Bro’ bows in shadow of woes

Controversy has Channel 4 on edge

The annual summer TV jamboree heralded by the return of “Big Brother” to British tubes for an eighth season kicked off May 30, as an all-female cast — including an ex-stripper, hippie activist and a pair of blonde, teenage twins — entered the “Big Brother” house.

The new edition of “Big Brother” should have meant good news for U.K. pubcaster Channel 4. The reality skein and its various spinoffs accounted for £165 million ($326 million) of the net’s ad revenues in 2006, according to a report published by media planning agency Starcom.

The first episode brought in some 8 million viewers, according to Channel 4 figures, matching the show’s record for a series-opener. Channel 4 execs were quick to boast of an average viewership of 6.2 million viewers, accounting for a 26% aud share, comfortably beating rival BBC skein “The Apprentice,” which peaked at 5.3 million viewers.

“This heralds a fantastic start to ‘Big Brother.’ We remain as committed as ever to making this year’s series the most entertaining yet,” says Angela Jain, Channel 4 commissioning editor for “Big Brother” and head of digital channel E4.

All is not well, however, at the net. A damning report by British media regulator Ofcom, which accused the net of a “serious lack of editorial judgment” following the row over alleged racism toward Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty during January’s “Celebrity Big Brother,” forced Channel 4 execs to deliver an on-air apology prior to the launch of “Big Brother’s” eighth edition

“We accept Ofcom’s judgment that on the occasions in question we did not ensure that ‘Big Brother’ intervened with the necessary promptness or strength. We would like to say (we’re) sorry once again for the offense caused to viewers as a result,” Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan said at the time.

But that hasn’t stopped further controversies over the planned airing of a Princess Diana docu, “Diana: The Witnesses in the Tunnel,” that purportedly included images of the dying princess.

Moreover, ongoing rumors that incoming premier Gordon Brown is considering privatizing the net if he takes power — as is widely expected in the summer — have left the net’s execs reeling.

Everyone from shadow cultural minister Hugo Swire to countless newspaper editorials has attacked falling standards and values at Blighty’s once-revered second pubcaster. Even Channel 4’s founding chief exec Jeremy Isaacs has accused the net of dumbing-down and being obsessed with “adolescent transgression and sex.”

Channel 4 is funded through advertising but owned by the government. If Brown does decide to privatize the embattled net, despite the firm denials by Channel 4 execs, it may not be only the “Big Brother” contestants facing public eviction.

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