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Alejandro Navas, Professor of Sociology, University of Navarra, Spain

Ten years of Big Brother

Mon, 26 Apr 2010 09:26:00 +0000 Published in Heraldo de Aragón

On April 23, 2000, the first edition of Gran Hermano began airing. Ten years and eleven editions later, our country has set a world record for the duration of the star reality show. The technical aspects have been sufficiently covered by television critics. Here I am more interested in analyzing what this phenomenon tells us about Spanish society. What subject audience demands such an excessive dose of a reality show of such characteristics?

When the program began to be broadcasted, Telecinco's directors sold it to us as a "sociological experiment". Today, Mercedes Milá has slightly changed this speech: "Now it is more than a sociological experiment, it is anthropological". There is no need to refute this pseudo-argumentation, which rather outrages us because of its hypocrisy or even cynicism. In any case, the experiment would lie in the behavior of the public, of the millions of people who keep an apparently unshakable loyalty to him. What is it all about, after all, in Big Brother? Basically, to see who fights with whom and who sleeps with whom. Sex and violence, life and death, the two great dramatic issues of all time.

In addition, in this case there is a competitive component and the public is a judge. The feeling of power obtained by voting and deciding the fate of the contestants provides an added pleasure. We are facing a new version of the old game between exhibitionism and voyeurism. Many people are willing to show millions of viewers what they would hardly tell a doctor, a confessor or a trusted relative in a climate of intimacy and discretion. And millions are waiting, eager to devour these supposedly dramatic events (we now know that the term "reality TV" is misleading: there is a lot of scripting and editing behind this apparent spontaneity; this is the only way to ensure the desirable level of morbidity). Contemplating the misfortunes of others becomes a compensatory mechanism for one's own mediocrity: others, let alone if they are somewhat famous, also cry. It does not matter that this game results in an alarming loss of vital depth or density. As the philosopher Karl Jaspers said in the early days of television, perhaps sensing what was coming, "to be a spectator is not to exist".

Many people seem to abdicate their own lives, renouncing all protagonism and living in a parasitic way, as a prosthesis of the screen, where the life that really counts would take place. Migration to the virtual world often brings with it a decrease in social capital, in face-to-face relationships with flesh-and-blood people. Apart from the interlocutors with whom people relate in social networks, many incorporate television characters, including fictional ones, into their circle of friends, giving them a relevant role in their own lives.

I am also concerned about an event prior to the program's broadcast: the dozens of thousands of candidates who apply for the casting to be selected. The arrival of the bus that travels around the country is an event in many localities. For centuries it was thought - and lived - that fame was the consequence of outstanding achievements in various fields: profession, military, artistic or scientific creation, sport. Talent was budget essential for notoriety. Not now: to be famous, even fleetingly, it is enough to step on the set and "ride the issue" -preferably with the aforementioned ingredients of sex and violence; in addition, it is essential to shout and insult. This is a perversion of the culture of effort that was so hard to implant in our society, and it is a disservice to our teenagers to let them slide down this slope.

"The more stupid the program is broadcast, the more intelligent the audience thinks it is", said Helmut Thoma in the nineties, at the time director general manager of RTL, one of the pioneers of European trash television. It is a pity that these words can be applied to our audience.