15 Minutes of Fame

It was Andy Warhol who claimed that, in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes. The future is now, and true celebrity status is a thing of the past. Gone are the days of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Clark Gable, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe; true stars created by the Hollywood studio system and regarded as royalty by an American populace without a monarchy. Today we have something much different. We have…Big Brother.

Sure, the movie stars were made by Tinseltown to keep the punters coming back for the familiar faces, but it wasn’t possible unless those stars had talent. Few people can deny that the above-mentioned actors, to name but a few from the era, had bucket-loads of charisma and, above all, something unique; something nobody else at the time truly possessed.

These days, there just aren’t the same kinds of movie stars around anymore. Sure, there’s George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and whilst they’re close to being a modern-day version of The Rat Pack, their mystique is shattered thanks to the gossip columns and dirt rags; they’re not royalty, they’re fodder.

Jim Carrey’s proved himself as a good actor, not least with his performance in The Truman Show. In that film, he portrayed Truman Burbank, who unwittingly becomes the main star of a TV show, from his birth, and all through his life, inside a town-sized studio filled with hidden cameras. Ed Harris played the producer who – when Truman realizes his “reality” and tries to escape the studio and the show itself – attempts to kill off the “character.” The movie spoke volumes about the kind of world we live in, where the media controls the everyday lives of each of us. So, I ask you: What stupid bastard at Channel 4 failed to truly get that concept, and instead twisted it into the freak show known as Big Brother?

Great Britain has the single highest concentration of CCTV cameras than any other nation on the planet. And it’s comparatively a little island, full of people living their lives on camera, encouraged to agree to carrying ID cards, so that the government and the corporations tracking our patterns can exploit us, control us, and, most importantly, market directly to us. Mmm! Juicy. But that’s the crux of the issue. Sure, there’s Tony Blair’s desire to spy on his people just like George W Bush Jr has on the American people, but ultimately it’s much more cynical than that. It’s the same reason the private company Connexions provided careers advice to youngsters upon receiving forms detailing their shopping habits and preferences, then using it to allow retailers to exploit. These decisions are made in government – our government – while people sit at home refusing to vote for a political party, instead voting for their favourite contestant on Big Brother. “Texts cost 50p, plus standard message rate,” they say. Added up, that’s a lot of money. That’s a lot of profit.

So, here we have Big Brother. It’s a program that features ordinary people in a “house,” full of CCTV cameras, allowing voyeuristic viewers to watch almost their every move, most of all their interactions with one another, as they perform several tasks. Team-building exercises, you ask? Not at all; the entire concept of this show is competition and, most importantly, division – it’s about back-stabbing and bitching, as evidenced by the “Diary Room” facility. Give Jack Dee his due: on the Celebrity Big Brother series (then for charitable good causes, but now just for ratings and profits), he refused to choose housemates for “eviction,” instead selecting them randomly from a pack of cards. But that’s not the idea – the idea is that everyone is out for themselves, and in it for themselves, until only they are left standing as the Big Brother winner, gaining fame and fortune for…for what? Hmm, when you think about it, the winner didn’t exactly achieve fame and fortune in the same way, say, Michael Moore did.

Fame and fortune. These things used to come through hard work, through achievements, and, most of all, through talent, especially when used for helping others. Margaret Thatcher’s philosophies of “win at all costs” and “don’t worry about who you step on whilst on your way to the top” have remained long after her iron grip on power ended, and this, whether we like to admit it or not, is taught to us in Big Brother. The ideas it encourages – selfishness, hypocrisy, greed – are pure Thatcherite.

But it’s not just the contestants who are after fame and fortune at any cost! On eBay, someone who’d got hold of a “golden ticket” to appear on Big Brother’s live final put it up for auction. My friend Mel told me that, with 17 minutes to go, it was at £609. At 5 minutes, a bidding war began between two people and it hit £700, then £1,000, then £2,000, before finally ending at £4,000. As if I wasn’t astounded enough, Mel then explained to me that the person in possession of the “golden ticket” gets a number which they quote when calling Big Brother (a call which itself might even reach four grand as well, with the rates they charge), then have to pass regulatory checks, and may get onto the live final of the show when drawn “randomly.” That, my friends, is the price people are prepared to pay for fame and fortune itself, even though true fame and true fortune are elusive; in this era of fast editing for short attention spans, people also have short memories, and these “stars” who whored themselves before the whole world are too often forgotten about. 15 minutes? Perhaps less, in the grand scheme.

When the most recent Celebrity Big Brother featured firebrand politician George Galloway, people laughed as he performed such activities as pretending to be a cat, licking milk from the cupped hands of Rula Lenska. What viewers don’t remember are his comments in opposition to the attack on Iraq, with his housemates agreeing with him. Why? Because the footage never aired. Channel 4’s tape-delay means they can hold back any footage they wish, preventing the viewing public – told they’re watching celebrities being open, ordinary people – seeing and hearing certain things. These segments, had they aired, would have reinforced what the mass majority of people believed in their hearts: that even celebrities reflect their disgust at the attack. Instead, all we remember is George Galloway “benefiting” from yet another incident. Meanwhile, Rula Lenska now makes money from cat-food commercials.

And so, Big Brother, whilst being marketed to us as exhibitionism of “ordinary” people like you and I (but preferably unashamedly apathetic and unafraid to make fools of themselves), isn’t quite “reality television” after all. Yet again, the media moguls make the decisions over what we get to see, and hey, there’s no lie in omission, right? Innocent Iraqi children with limbs hanging from their bloodied bodies; a stage-managed Baghdad square with soldiers and press gathering to fill it and destroy the statue of Saddam Hussein; or celebrities’ opposition to these events – sometimes what we don’t see on TV is more important than what we do see.

Adbusters, however, may disagree. They believe that television ought to be held accountable for the things we consume through our sets, just like the food and drinks industry is accountable for what we consume through our mouths. Poor physical health is obviously usually far easier to detect than poor mental health. But what damage is being done by “reality television”? The things it teaches our children, like selfishness, hypocrisy, greed? The way it tells us anyone can make it if they just believe in nothing and exploit themselves? The fact it doesn’t really require us to think anything other than these concepts? Designed for people on-the-go with short attention spans and weary minds, Big Brother is the fast-food of TV, and it’s most probably even more harmful, because it affects how we see society and how we interact with one another. In a country with the most CCTV cameras, it might be said that Big Brother is watching us, and in such times, we really ought to be doing something other than watching Big Brother.

The TV show, that is.

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