Could Reality TV Ever Return To Its Classic Glory Days?

Or have we simply come too far?

In 2022, ITV2 announced that they were rebooting Big Brother. After an almost five year hiatus, the king of reality TV was coming back with new contestants, new challenges, and undeniably, new memes. The news was met with a flurry of excitement from social media and beyond, as fans of the original series reminisced on the glory of its early days and prayed that its essence could once again be recaptured.

Over the past two decades, reality TV has become a staple of pop culture. Real or fake, scripted or legit, authentic or not, thousands of series have entertained the masses for years, causing drama, destroying relationships, and creating their own special kind of celebrity. But we’re not here to talk about scripted reality shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians (or as it’s now known, simply the Kardashians), we’re here to discuss classic reality TV like Big Brother and whether such a beautifully simple format would ever work again. After all, the halcyon days of reality TV may have occurred long ago, but could it be about to have a renaissance?

At the height of its popularity, Big Brother was raking in an average of 5.9 million viewers per night. This was during the show’s third season, the one that made the likes of Jade Goody, Kate Lawlor, and Adele Roberts household names, as the format remained simple and the contestants remained, well… nobodies.

As the series wore on, things began to change. The contestants were getting younger, the tasks were getting wilder, and the ratings were, unsurprisingly, dropping. The show ran for 11 seasons on Channel 4 before the network bid goodbye with the eagerly anticipated Ultimate Big Brother, which saw Ireland’s own Brian Dowling emerge victorious. After that, it was broadcast on Channel 5 until 2018, where ratings remained a fraction of what they had once been.

Big Brother’s reign wasn’t only long, it was also incredibly significant… in the world of pop culture anyway. The series didn’t just provide viewers with hours upon hours of entertainment (sometimes, 24 hours – remember those live feeds on E4?), it also changed the face of TV forever. Suddenly it wasn’t enough to see ‘real people’ on game shows and docu-series, now we needed to witness their every move, every hour, of every day.

The series spawned a number of spin-offs and franchises in 62 countries around the world. The first show, which aired in the Netherlands in 1999, provided the benchmark format but countless reality shows have since borrowed from it. The likes of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here and Love Island may have solidified themselves as giants within the reality realm, but their formats are based entirely on the basics of the Big Brother model. They simply wouldn’t exist without it.

According to CivicScience, 52 percent of adults in the United States say that they watch at least one hour of reality TV per week. These numbers were pulled in 2022 so chances are most of these people are bingeing scripted reality shows like KUWTK, Real Housewives, and Selling Sunset rather than more traditional series like Big Brother. Regardless, the stats remain stark. 48 percent of people might claim they don’t watch reality TV at all, but that still leaves a whole lot of people who do. And the rest, realistically, are probably lying. At least a little bit.

So, just where did our fascination with the lives of ‘real people’ stem from, and how exactly did Big Brother manage to capture that magic, and run with it? In the podcast Unreal: A Critical History of Reality TV, journalists Pandora Sykes and Sirin Kale take listeners on a two decade long trip down memory lane as they recall the high highs – and the low lows – of programmes like The X Factor, The Hills, and even the morally abhorrent There’s Something About Miriam and The Swan. But before all of that, they considered the UK’s first ever reality TV show – Big Brother.

The show, Sirin says on the podcast, “kick started a genre of reality TV that still dominates entertainment today. It birthed the modern day obsession with authenticity, renegotiated the boundaries of celebrity, and started a debate that we’re still having today about the moral obligations about making reality TV.”

Sirin and Pandora don’t just recall the history of reality TV, they also question its merits, its morals, and wonder whether there’s even a place for it in today’s society. Shows based on the Big Brother model have given us global stars, shrieking laughs, and enough spin-offs to wave a stick at, but they have also proven to be a vehicle for exploitation, misrepresentation, and in some cases, mental distress.

In 2021, Love Island published its duty of care for the first time. The document stated that contestants would be required to attend a minimum of eight therapy sessions, be given social media training upon leaving the villa, and encouraged to seek management representation if they planned on staying in the public eye. The move came some time after the deaths of contestants Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon, and former presenter Caroline Flack. Producers acknowledged the level of fame and notoriety that could come with the series, and repeatedly encouraged viewers to ‘be kind’ about the people they were watching.

But, some still wonder, is it enough? In 2022, Ofcom received over 7,000 complaints about Love Island. This, however, was nothing compared to the previous year when more than 37,000 complaints were filed – a staggering 24,000 of those being related to a fight between Faye Winter and Teddy Soares. According to social media, viewers were concerned for contestants’ mental well being, and the strain that the environment must have been putting on their health. Contrary to this, former contestant Amy Hart has said that Love Island’s aftercare “saved her life”, recalling that the welfare team came into the villa every day to check that everyone was alright. Fellow contestant Sharon Gafka also praised ITV2 for the physical and mental health checks that were done before islanders were chosen for the show, saying that the support she received from the team when she left the villa was “amazing.”

The difference between the early days of Big Brother and more recent episodes of Love Island are stark. Both became colossal reality giants in their own right, but where BB housemates were once permitted to run ragged, Love Islanders now live in a very controlled environment, one that preaches kindness and only permits two alcoholic drinks per person per night.

But it wasn’t the fights, the drunkenness, and the chaos that made that first series of Big Brother so good. It was the authenticity, the strangeness, and the fact that a group of people sitting around doing nothing could actually be so entertaining. To return to such simple glory in the upcoming Big Brother reboot would mean a rejection of everything that reality TV has since become, and unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’re quite there just yet.