A reality check as Big Brother is evicted from our screens

The exact date Big Brother became a phenomenon is easy to pinpoint. It was August 17, 2000.

Thinly dressed-up as a social experiment, the first series had already been running for a few weeks and until that night it had been pretty run-of-the-mill stuff. But amid allegations of cheating and smuggling a paper and pencil into the house, Nasty Nick was evicted and Big Brother took on a life of its own.

From then on it became compulsive viewing and much of its charm came from the very ordinariness of the contestants, who had stepped into a brave new world of television on our behalf. Among those first housemates was a florist, an art teacher and a computer engineer. The most outlandish was Anna Nolan, a lesbian who had briefly flirted with becoming a nun. By the time she entered the house, she worked in Dublin as an office manager.

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Fast forward to the last series when the roll call included a part-time glamour model, an international playboy and a 20-something American who described himself simply as an "entertainer" and the evidence for Big Brother's long and painful demise is clear.

Next week the final series will get underway, but those hoping that when Davina McCall whips up the baying eviction crowd for one last time, the death of the diary room will also mark a sea change against reality TV may be disappointed.

"When it comes to television, there's no such thing as a new idea," says Andy Fox, senior lecturer in television production at Huddersfield University. "How different is Britain's Got Talent to New Faces or Strictly Come Dancing to Come Dancing? Everything gets reinvented at one time or another, and the genre of reality TV now covers such a broad range of programmes that anything which features real people comes under its banner.

"The one 'first' that Big Brother can claim, is the sense of audience immersion. It wasn't just about the public voting for which housemate got evicted, it spawned a whole online community and chatrooms which were constantly buzzing and it also made use of live feeds, which were strangely compulsive, even when everyone was fast asleep.

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"That kind of involvement is something every programme maker would like to replicate and I suspect the drive for audience immersion will only get more intense."

Compared to drama and documentaries, reality TV is relatively cheap to produce and with budgets tightening, healthy bottom lines have become an increasingly attractive prospect.

While there are still ordinary members of the public willing to

humiliate themselves for little more than the promise of fame, and while the rest of us can be persuaded to spend hours watching them

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fail, it will take more than the end of Big Brother to overhaul the schedules.

"Big Brother was an amalgam of what we once called fly-on-the wall documentaries," says Kate Dunn, curatorial assistant of TV Heaven at the National Media Museum in Bradford.

"It took the intimate camera techniques, the interaction between the subject and the interviewer and the idea that everyone had a story to tell and wrapped it up in one package.

"I think most people agree that it has come to the end of its natural life and, personally, I'd like to see the format abandoned in favour of more creative shows. Channel 4 has a history of really groundbreaking programming and it would be nice to think that it would make more event television in the shape of Red Riding than, say, Come Dine With Me."

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The recent success of dramas like the BBC's thriller Five Days which ran over consecutive nights and shows like Married, Single, Other have proved there's an appetite for quality, but, when it comes to reality television, the bottom of the barrel might not yet have been scraped.

"There's plenty of mining still be done in the rich vein of humiliation," says television consultant Gordon Torr. "I'm a Celebrity humiliates celebrities. The Apprentice humiliates business wannabes. Dragons' Den humiliates people who think they've got good ideas. X Factor humiliates people who think they've got talent. So I suspect we'll see another version of someone humiliating someone else. Why not children? Why not animals? Kittens would be good.

"Anything so long as it doesn't involve spending money on real talent in the interests of genuine entertainment."