In his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius Loyola says that pride, riches and greed are the three most seductive and destructive temptations in the world. So many conflicts, and their continuance, can be traced to the interplay of this unholy trinity. We should never be surprised, then, when our culture reflects back to us just how far some of our compatriots will go to be famous, to be wealthy, to have more of anything.
Big Brother often wins its nightly timeslot, but its great success is that it is the number one programme for Australians aged 16-39. Following its initial success in The Netherlands it has been staged in 18 other countries. In every case it has been a ratings and advertising bonanza and so it is in Australia as well.
There are several elements to this programme. Take 12 randomly selected people, lock them up for three months and see how they get on. Put cameras everywhere in the house so that they have no private space, nowhere 'to hide'. Film them 24 hours a day, seven days a week for three months. After the first week, have the participants cast two votes on who should be expelled. The audience are told which three participants scored the most votes from the other house members and, after watching a fraction of the houses' activity, are asked to vote on which one should be sent packing. 272,000 audience votes were registered in the first week. The producers pay all the participants an undisclosed sum for their trouble, but they will pay the 'winner' $250,000. The participants know that later on they could gain celebrity status and money by giving the 'real' story to newspapers, magazines and on-line chat rooms.
In a culture addicted to pride, riches and greed, how could Big Brother fail? For Christians, however, it fails the most basic test of respecting personal dignity and building up humanity.
Let's take each of the elements in turn. First, the people on Big Brother are not randomly chosen. They are carefully selected from thousands of applicants and screened for the conflict they might spark as much as for the contribution they could make to the house. Second, no matter how extroverted or gregarious a person is, he or she is entitled to privacy. The demands of constant surveillance in toilets, showers, bedrooms and elsewhere does not recognise the psychological necessity for personal space. Third, given that the producers have 23 cameras rolling 24 hours a day, they have 552 hours of tape to edit each day. Big Brother is a study in how mundane life really is. Big Brother is, for the most part, very dull TV. The producers desperately need conflict to make the programme work. Fourth, to ensure there is conflict in the house, participants are 'privately' interviewed about whom they like and dislike and then they vote for their own survival by voting others out. This appeals to the most basic human instinct: I come first!
Fifth, the audience, who gets to see a fraction of the household's life, bases its judgements on the way the tape is cut together. My hunch is that the producers have carefully worked out each week's casualty and edit the programme accordingly. Sixth, win or lose participants are paid to perform and that is what they do. The problem is that this is a dangerous experiment and the producers and the audience do not actually care about the participants. The producers are in this for the money while the audience are voyeurs. Finally, our culture of celebrity affects everyone from High Court judges to Big Brother participants and so life beyond the programme can make all the sacrifices seem worth it. There is a psychologist on call for the house but I also hope the debriefing of these young people is significant when they leave. Furthermore, I trust that counselling is offered to those who suffer in the future. POWs and former prisoners remind us that the Big Brother is playing with fire.
The usual response to criticisms of Big Brother is that all the participants are adults, making a free choice to be there. This is true to the extent that no one is being coerced to appear. But the maturity of people, so seduced by pride, riches and greed that they would choose Big Brother reveals how out of kilter are our cultural values that creates and encourages TV like this. Peter Weir was criticised for making a media fantasy in The Truman Show. Weir's work now seems prophetic for Truman is the next logical step after Big Brother.
Christians always give dignity to people who do not claim it for themselves; so make a claim for the remnant left on Big Brother and switch channels.
Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the Director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.