Controversial reality skein wraps sixth season

On a continent where strife and division are more common than togetherness, “Big Brother Africa,” while remaining controversial, has struck a chord with viewers hoping to move beyond borders.

The sixth season, which wrapped July 31, was groundbreaking in its expansion outside its South Africa base, to include contestants from 14 countries. The contestants themselves were young, urban and cosmopolitan. They had been educated abroad, had smartphones and designer jeans, and were as familiar with today’s globalized youth culture as they were with the movies and music being made in their own backyards.

Secluded in a lavish house in one of Johannesburg’s poshest suburbs, the housemates bickered, bawled and bared all in the show’s notorious “shower hour” as more than two dozen cameras filmed their every move. Two winners each walked away with the $200,000 grand prize.

Airing in more than 40 countries via South African web M-Net, which produces the show with reality giant Endemol, the antics of the housemates raised various cultural questions.

Some have charged that the contestants were less a reflection of their unique countries and cultures than of the homogeneous, Westernized world of Africa’s elite — that they don’t reflect the typical face of African youth today. One Ugandan media critic described the show as “the veneration of cool (and) the elevation of posh.”

M-Net Africa managing director Biola Alabi says housemates are chosen, as they are in “Big Brother’s” various incarnations around the world, “for their entertainment value and ability to engage with the format.”

When sparks fly, it typically has less to do with clashing cultures than competing egos.

The show’s sexually charged atmosphere has provoked public outcry from its earliest editions, with critics complaining that the series went against the conservative mores typical across the continent.

In the show’s second season, a drunken encounter between two contestants sparked debate over whether or not the female contestant had been sexually assaulted. (Both M-Net and the woman denied any wrongdoing had taken place.)

A kiss between two female contestants ignited debates on message boards across the continent over the touchy issue of homosexuality. Married housemates’ onscreen affairs have forced the issue of adultery into the open.

While M-Net has been happy to reap the ratings rewards of such controversies, it has bowed to public pressure to tone things down on more than one occasion.

When a Ugandan contestant slapped a female housemate last season, provoking outraged responses from women’s rights groups, the network booted the assailant from the house.

And after complaints that some of the steamy onscreen scenes went too far, the net made lemonade out of lemons — intoducing a separate, unfiltered channel available only to subscribers — and making the more risque elements available on pay-per-view.

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