Monday, May 2, 2011

Global Media Seminar: A Study of Reality Television Through the Big Brother Format and its Reappropriations in France

By Jessica Noone

Reality television is a fairly new genre of televiison which is sweeping across many countries and cultures, originiating in the Anglo-American countries. Big Brother (UK) began in 2000, and features approximately 15 contestants living together, isolated in a house, for a period of around three months. This show gives audiences a voyeuristic look and uses audience participation to determine the outcome of the show. The Big Brother format has been sold to almost 70 countries (Magder 145) and has become a prime-time success in most of them. According to Brian Briggs, a producer at Endemol, “the reason why Endemol is so successful is that we take a format that works in one country, strip everything cultural off of it, export it to a new country, and then, over time, add cultural aspects of that country to it.” (Magder 147)

Loft Story, started in 2001, was the French interpretation of the Big Brother format. The France show voted contestants off gender by gender until only two remained. The remaining couple would then have to continue to compete, living together in Saint-Tropez for 45 days before they could win the money. Therefore, we can see that the French transformed the format into something distinguishably French: a focus on love, romance and intimacy. With changes to the title away from its totalitarian undertones, and a stylized cartoon eye as its logo, the French made Loft Story their own.

Premiers were met with great protests, which must be seen “in the context of the wide paranoia the French have about protecting their own cultural values.” (Brissenden) The Conseil Superieur l’Audiovisuel decided that the producers of Loft Story must not show anything which could “undermine the dignity of the human person,” (Brissenden) and also enforced a mandated two hours per day off camera, out of respect for human dignity. The CSA also ordered the voting mentality to be reversed: audience members would vote people to stay in the house, rather than the more negative voting people out. The case study of Loft Story shows “the difficulty of French attempts to establish a French television [program] with a wide appeal which does not betray the state’s higher aspirations for France as a beacon of civilization.” (Dauncey 97)

Beginning in 2007, Secret Story carried on from the tradition of Loft Story, technically the third season of French Big Brother. The main difference between Secret Story and Loft Story is that each contestant comes in withholding a secret and it is up to the other members of the house to figure out those secrets, for a monetary prize.

Though the format of Big Brother itself comes from Anglo media, the ideas of watching power struggles and studies of human nature is not something which can really be owned by any one country. Frau-Meigs states that the shows open up a discursive space, like a public sphere between countries, “some values, connected to money and individualism, enter the Southern European countries’ spectrum; other values, connected to seduction and collective idleness, cross over to the northern countries of the EU. It is, properly, a percolation process.” (39) Each country is able to take the basic format and add or subtract pieces to create something which better fits their perception of national identities.

We are told that “reality TV is profoundly political in its implications as it brings into the public space a marketplace of self-promotion while annexing the private sphere of intimacy and secrecy.” (Frau-Meigs 46) The showing of scandal on television can be seen as a “civic necessity” which opens up conversation about topics otherwise hidden away. (Frau-Meigs 47) A program called “Les accords de Marseille” brings Israeli and Palestinian teenagers into a house, asking them to find solutions to the problems of the Middle East. (Louarn) When used correctly, reality television has the capacity to use our shared humanity to bring together people of different cultures and create a collective European public sphere.

Written Citations:

Brissenden, Michael. "France Goes Mad from Loft Story." ABC Online - Correspondents Report. 27 May 2001. Web. 26 Mar. 2011. .

Dauncey, Hugh. "French `Reality Television': More than a Matter of Taste?" European Journal of Communication 11.1 (1996): 83-106. Print.

Frau-Meigs, Divina. "Big Brother and Reality TV in Europe: Towards a Theory of Situated Acculturation by the Media." European Journal of Communication 21.33 (2006): 33-56. Print.

Louarn, Anne-Diandra. "French Reality TV Show Brings Israelis and Palestinians Together." Le Figaro - Actualit├ęs. 10 June 2010. Web. 04 Apr. 2011. .

Magder, Ted. "The End of TV 101: Reality Television, Formats and the New Business of Television." Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. By Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette. New York: New York UP, 2004. 137-52.

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