Reality formats put sizzle into summer

Start of season signals return of 'Brother'

LONDON — Once, Brits could tell summer had arrived when a seasonal shower stopped play at Lord’s cricket ground. Not anymore.

Nowadays, summer is on the way when “Big Brother,” the Endemol show that put reality television on the U.K. media menu in 2000, returns.

Twelve wannabes were to check into the “Big Brother” house on May 23 and, if anything, the buzz surrounding the show is louder than ever.

Already, Blighty’s brashest tabloid, the Sun, is offering £50,000 ($70,000) to the first couple to “get it on.”

With luck, the Sun’s ruse should persuade the all-important 16-34 demographic to watch in even greater numbers.

Meanwhile, terrestrial channels are luring auds to their little-watched digital webs with fuller coverage of their summer reality shows.

Last year there was unease among ad agencies that “Big Brother,” aired on youth-obsessed Channel 4, attracted an older, more blue-collar audience than usual, but overall viewing figures were higher than ever.

So, too, was the revenue curve, as 22 million phone votes were cast and people forked out around $15 a month to watch the action inside the house via the Web.

More reality shows than ever before are competing for audiences.

Last week saw the launch of “Celebrity Detox Camp” on C4’s chief rival, Five. The show forces contestants to fast and undergo daily colonic irrigation live on camera, prompting BBC2 controller Jane Root to say she would never transmit anything as “sick-making.”

Proof that the reality bubble has not burst, and that Blighty’s TV community retains its knack for reinventing reality shows, came earlier in May when the second series of ITV1’s “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here” made an even bigger splash than last fall’s debut.

The final program won a 52.4% share. Meanwhile, streaming “I’m a Celebrity” live on digital sister station ITV2 upped ratings as audiences doubled to a 3.33% share.

Similarly, live uninterrupted coverage of “Big Brother” has worked ratings wonders for C4’s digital sibling E4.

“People who work in TV have been saying that shows have a shorter and shorter shelf life,” says Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Endemol U.K. “But when a show is correctly scheduled, as the British version of ‘Big Brother’ has demonstrated, this is not true.”

However, reality TV’s increased importance in the schedules is causing concern in high places.

U.K. culture minister Tessa Jowell infuriated channel execs when she said that “cheap” shows like “I’m a Celebrity” were squeezing out quality drama, comedy and current affairs.

And in contrast to the reality-obsessed tabloids, Blighty’s broadsheets have begun to wonder if reality TV is getting too mean for its own good.

“When it started, ‘Big Brother’ had lofty pretensions to examine the company of strangers,” opined liberal paper the Guardian. “But social observation has yielded to darker impulses — to stir conflict, polarize and humiliate.”

“Big Brother” 2002 encouraged one of the contestants to strip naked while drunk in full view of the cameras. Expect more humiliation in the weeks ahead.

But Bazalgette rejects the notion that mean TV is turning meaner: “There are two myths about reality TV. One is that the genre is dying, the other is that it is becoming crueler. Neither is true. The cruelest show, ‘Temptation Island,’ which encouraged couples to cheat on one another, was launched two years ago. Filming celebrities carrying out stunts involving their underwear and small furry animals is pantomime and harms no one.”

What is clear is that, provided reality shows remain true to their roots as event TV, the genre is here to stay.

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