Formats Unpacked: Big Brother

How a reality show took fly-on-the-wall to a whole new level

Hi All,

How are you all doing?

I hope this week’s newsletter provides a tiny distraction from the nonsense that we’re currently living through. Ironically, if it wasn’t for this format the last four years might never have happened. I’m stuck between constantly cursing reality shows whilst wanting to celebrate a format that provided some of the greatest TV moments EVER!!!

Was it worth it? You decide!

Rob Mansfield returns to do the unpacking. Rob previously unpacked Pass Notes and has a great newsletter you should all subscribe to.

Over to Rob…

What's it called?

Big Brother (TV Show)

What’s the format?

A group of people - known as 'housemates' - who have never met before, live in a specially-constructed house, isolated from the outside world for up to 10 weeks. 

Their actions are filmed and monitored 24 hours a day by hidden cameras and personal microphones, and often dictated by 'Big Brother', who sets them tasks. 

Throughout the stay housemates are evicted and the last remaining housemate wins a cash prize. 

What’s the magic that made it special?

Big Brother took people of a different class, race, gender, and political and social views, dumped them into a confined space and allowed things to come to a head - which they inevitably did.

The psychological pressure of watching people confined in one place for a long period, without friends and family, and going through extremes of emotion, made for exciting, compelling and often-uncomfortable viewing.

However, there was more to it than that. From the first fly-on-the-wall documentary in the UK in the 1970s onwards, there was relatively little influence on the outcome. Programme-makers would film the subjects and hope (sometimes via skillful questioning) that they said or did something that made good TV.

What changed with Big Brother was not just that the setting was completely manufactured, but also the manipulation of the housemates by producers was overt and on display. TV makers have always distorted events using editing (and ultimately still did with Big Brother), but for the first time you - the viewer - could watch it complicitly.

Whether it was watching contestants unburden themselves in the Diary Room (in a quasi-religious confessional setting), or seeing them take part in bizarre, funny or occasionally-sinister challenges, as the viewer you were always ‘in on the joke’. 

This 24/7 filming provided an almost endless supply of footage to feed the beast that became the viewer. It’s important to point out that the daily TV highlights round-up, along with the live eviction show on a Friday evening was a novel concept in 2000.

In an era before social media and streaming services, having something to watch daily, other than the news, meant that Big Brother quickly became appointment TV and gave you something to talk about and bond over with work colleagues.

It’s fair to say that Big Brother’s success came with a huge slice of luck. Midway through Series 1. ‘Nasty’ Nick Bateman was caught trying to discuss eviction nominations with other housemates, which was expressly against the rules. Craig Phillips confronted him publicly, and ultimately Nick was ejected from the house by the producers for breaking the rules. 

The confrontation became front-page tabloid news, made Craig a public hero and the first winner, and boosted ratings for Channel 4 by almost 50% overnight.

For around 5-6 years thereafter, Big Brother became essential viewing for millions and dominated tabloid newspapers in the UK - the Series 3 finale in 2002 got 10m viewers. 

Not only did it make stars of the likes of Jade Goody, Alison Hammond and Brian Dowling, it also turbo-charged the careers of presenters Davina McCall and Dermot O’Leary. 

Favourite episode?

It’s easier to pick stand-out moments and contestants, rather than episodes. In 2004, Nadia Almida was not only the first transgender contestant but she went on to win the series. A reminder that likeability ultimately wins out with the public. 

In Series 3, Alex Sibley’s miming That’s The Way I Like It to the camera still makes me smile, while early series’ housemates Helen Adams and Jon Tickle stick in the memory.

The bizarre house-swap in 2003, when eventual winner Cameron was flown to South Africa for two weeks and replaced by Gaetano.

The less said about Kinga and what she did with a wine bottle the better, while Nikki Grahame in the Diary Room in Series 7 was always a treat - probably the last series I watched properly, before it jumped the shark.

Similar formats

In the UK, Big Brother beat Survivor to the punch, even though the latter had been devised some years before (and their similarities ended up being the subject of a court case!).

The concept of celebrity reality shows really started with Celebrity Big Brother - the Comic Relief spin-off in 2001. After all, who can forget politician George Galloway pretending to be a cat? Or the more uncomfortable racist confrontation in 2007 between Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty.

Celebrity Big Brother heavily influenced the juggernaut that is I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here - 19 series and counting! - while Love Island owes everything to Big Brother.

The spin-off show - The Xtra Factor / It Takes Two / I’m A Celebrity Extra Camp - all started with Big Brother’s Little Brother.


Thanks Rob,

It’s hard to think of many formats that had the same impact Big Brother had on TV. I’d love to hear your thoughts on other formats from different fields. Serial definitely fuelled a particular kind of storytelling in the podcast world. What were the game formats and radio formats that created new genres? Mail me if you’d like to unpack one.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you all next week.


Now Donald. Please leave the Big Baby House. You have been evicted.