Ten years ago Big Brother burst onto our screens with the promise of instant celebrity for anyone who could hold the audience’s attention long enough for them to cast a vote.
To maintain interest as the novelty wore thin, successive series had to court controversy and offer ever more colourful characters. Soon it will go altogether, and with more of a whimper than a bang.
Love it or hate it, it will leave quite a legacy. It was the daddy of reality shows and it spawned dozens of imitations all offering shortcuts to fame and fortune. Many will deem it shallow, others just great entertainment.
Arguably, its lasting impact has gone much deeper, touching every facet of our lives, particularly for the next four years.
Barely ten weeks ago the first of the three General Election “leaders’ debates” burst onto our screens with all the fanfare of a celebrity event.
Gordon Brown was always going to struggle to overcome all that familiarity breeds. David Cameron was bound to struggle under the weight of expectation as the polls were already past their peak.
Nick Clegg was just pleased to be there. With little to lose, he sucked up the oxygen of publicity and let rip.
Until that point, so nondescript was he that, having barely completed his first term in Parliament, for millions of viewers it was the first time they’d been aware they’d seen him speak. He did it well. The path was set for the present coalition.
These seemingly unrelated events have more in common than might immediately meet the eye.
Text to vote
The televised debates weren’t accompanied by text votes, but the plethora of pollsters did almost the same job. The headlines the next day were all about Clegg. The momentum was set and a hung parliament started to look like a real possibility.
All the laborious and meticulous groundwork, detailed policy work, analysis, strategy and fund raising that each party had put into planning for the election had meant little. The hours and hours of canvassing, mobilising the grass roots and issues-driven policy debates that were to follow were to mean little more.
Honesty and integrity cut through
Ten years of Big Brother had taught us that deference to authority counts for little. When we get the chance we are very comfortable with democracy, and are used to making swift and instinctive judgements.
The stage had been set with the expenses scandal and failings that led to the financial crisis, both of which undermined respect for once-hallowed institutions.
The reaction to that first leaders’ debate rammed home how consumer power and influence have changed fundamentally in the past decade.
When we see honesty and integrity, without the trappings of spin, we like it and, even if we don’t know much else about it, we vote with our feet, our phones and in the ballot box.
No hiding place in the digital democracy
The implications for corporates and brands might be as equally clear: there is no hiding place in the digital democracy.
History will show how we remember nondescript Nick ten years down the line but, for now, “nasty” Nick Bateman, we salute you.
Big Brother’s impact goes further though, to the channels we use to communicate.
This was heralded as the first digital election. Though the pundits seem split on whether it was or not (perhaps partly because the digital debate was eclipsed by the reality show at the leaders’ debates), let’s not forget Big Brother’s contribution to digital communications.
Part of the phenomena when it first hit our screens was that there was nowhere to hide. You could (and can) follow the house mates 24 hours a day.
That was part of its prurient appeal (and maybe the show’s demise is because we are now just so used to that sort of access).
The killer app for streaming video
Back in those days, though, online video had not taken off. Broadband-speed connections were not ubiquitous in work environments and most of us struggled at home with the 64k dial up. Streaming video was slow and clunky and there was little reason to try.
Little reason, that is, until we wanted to catch nasty Nick plotting in real time, and so more people than ever before took their first steps to download the software to stream the show.
Again, where popular entertainment led ten years ago, the democratic process was not far behind.