Documentarydfgfdg Film. Riddles of Globalisation
14th INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FILM SYMPOSIUM REPORT 2001
proceedings of the International Documentary Film Symposium held on September 8 - 13, 2001 in Riga, Latvia



Hundred Days of Attention
Some Remarks On RTL II: "Big Brother"
Wolfgang Wunden
Stuttgart


1. Why I studied 'Big Brother'
I am a scientific moralist. I work on the problems of personal morality and moral problems in society. I devoted my scholarly thesis to the theme of individual right to personal intimacy as nucleus of personal and political freedom.
Working since 1973 at SDR and SWR as a radio producer and staff member I continued to work on moral problems of mass media. I was a co-founder of the German Association for Media Education and Communication Culture (GMK) in 1984 and of the German Media Ethics Network in 1997.
2. "Big Brother" The essential facts
Hundred days in a container
First I'll give a brief description of the show. Ten young people who do not know each other are placed in a narrow container totally separated from the outer world. Then they are observed by cameras day and night for hundred days. They take part in the experiment voluntarily and can leave the house whenever they wanted.
Yet they are obliged to leave the container when they were submitted to the so-called "nomination". The group nominates two candidates and TV audience decides who of the them must leave. He or she who remains until the end is the winner and gets an amount of money as an award.
All that under the conditions of a very simple life.
In Germany three series have been broadcast until now: two of them in 2000 and one in 2001.
What was to be seen from outside
About thirty webcams installed everywhere in the house collected hours and hours of material. There was a daily show on television of 50 minutes summarizing the material of the past 24 hours. Besides there was a weekly summary show of 50 minutes on Sundays followed by a weekly talkshow of 55 minutes. For the decision at the end of the "nomination" there was a two hour show on Sunday evening.
Meanwhile the show was demonstrated live on the Internet for 24 hours a day. Every user could choose a camera by which he or she wanted to watch what was going on.
The critics said: "Banality has been put on the stage in the prime time." RTL II commented the show differently: "It is the biggest and most fascinating challenge which TV has to offer in 2000: the ten people are the heroes of our time."
Success: Audience and Users
"Big Brother" was an outstanding success for RTL II and the producer, John de Mol. The income only from merchandising was about 15 million dollars DM. The average number of viewers was 2,37 million per day.
In some days 70% of the economically most interesting target group (young people between 14 and 29 years old) were reached.
RTL II succeeded to raise its average portion of the market considerably - like the broadcasters in other European states presenting "Big Brother".
I have also some statistics concerning other states where "Big Brother" was broadcast. The acceptance of the show was extremely high practically everywhere. The only nation where "Big Brother" didn't succeed was the United States.
In Germany the interest of young people to the show was very high and increased after the first series. The number of appliers for participation raised from 20, 000 for the first series to 70, 000 for the second one.
Marketing efforts
The success was mostly due to great efforts in public relations and all kind of marketing.
At the beginning there were two factors which in combination created the atmosphere for a harsh public debate: rumors coming from the "Big Brother" presentation in the Netherlands and a marketing print campaign of RTL, which suggested breaking of taboos and crossing of moral borders. Still the most effective marketing (at no cost for RTL II) was a public debate.
Professor Voß (SWR General Director) called the experiment "Menschzoo" (zoo containing people).
Prime Minster Beck said that human dignity was violated. Before the series started and just before the beginning of his electoral campaign, he postulated "Big Brother" should not be broadcast.
All the leading newspapers and magazines nationwide took up the case and dedicated many articles to it.
3. Soap Panopticism
"Big Brother", our real-life soap on RTL II, seems to be a syncretistic mixture and quotation of thoughts, writings and cultural symbols in a wide sense.
There was an exhibition at the Centre of Arts & Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany called "Rhertorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother". The exhibition presented electronical art referring implicitly or explicitly to Jeremy Bentham, a British philosopher.
In 1785 he created a model of a prison he called panopticon. From the central tower all the prisoners (each one is sitting in a separate cell) could be observed, while the prisoners were not able to know if they currently were observed or not. The real observation therefore could be replaced by the permanent possibility to be observed. Rationalist Bentham hoped people would internalize the controlling eye and therefore not commit crimes.
For him the panoptical principle in which power expresses itself by structures of space would be a valid contribution to the education of mankind in the sense of the Enlightenment.
In the whole draft of "Big Brother" there are some hints to power and surveillance as instrument of sustaining power, invisible and omnipresent power.
ZKM in its brochure lists up modern and current performances of electronical art dealing with panoptical issues:
- in the 60s:
Vito Acconci, Persecution Performances
Andy Warhol, Experiments with "real time"
and early Closed-Circuit-Video
- in the 70s:
Bruce Naumanns, Video Corridors
Dan Graham "Time Delay Room"
Rem Koolhaas "Project for the Renovation of Panoptical Prison"
- in the 80s:
Sophie Calle's documentation of the control of herself
Michael Klier's compilation of found surveillance material in his film "The Giant".
- in the 90s:
Thomas Ruff's night photos, different installations by Diller+Scofidio, from the ironical practices of surveillance of the Bureau of Inverse Technology to the documentation of public control cameras by Frank Thiel and the systematic search for such cameras by the "New York Surveillance Camera Project".
Currently Laura Kurgan's new use of satellite photos which are no longer subject to secrecy to the Internet project "We Live in Public" by Josh Harris in 2000 under the conditions of permanent real-time surveillance.
So far "Big Brother" is part of a panoptic movement in modern electronic arts, in a kind of soap panopticism, close to films like The Truman Show or Enemy of the State.
Philosophers and theologians remember a lot of items and motifs when viewing "Big Brother". God himself is considered "Big Brother": His Eye sees everybody and everything.
This was the starting point for Jean-Paul Sartre's Existentialism:
L' être et le néant - être vu par autrui (to be seen by another one).
He relies on the experiences of his childhood (moral conduct imposed by the aunt with reference to God who sees everything). His drama Huit Clos designs a scenario upon which our real-life-soap-television seems to be based. Some persons speak - at closed doors but in front of the theatre audience - on the depths of their inner lives. Once closed together, their relations get radicalized: insults, sex and violence are present. L'enfer - c'est les autres .
I remember Spanish Christian mystics like San Juan de la Cruz: En una noche obscure… God comes to him by night, ya mi casa sosegada (my house is already closed).
The Lebanese Muslim and mystic writer Khalil Gibran (1931) writes down the teaching of the great prophet on what life is like:
"Your life, my friend, is an island in midst of the ocean, separated from all other islands. You must bear the burden of loneliness…
Your life, my friend, is a lonely place, separated from the houses of other people. It's a house, into the inner side of which the glance of any neighbour cannot intrude".
The general motto of RTL II "Big Brother" promises the opposite: "You are not alone!"
Difference to religion: the Eye of God has been substituted by the eyes of the TV audience.
4. "Big Brother" in moral terms
Main objections:
- violation of privacy what means violation of human dignity;
- lack of autonomy - the candidates were treated as objects of the arbitrariness of the editing team;
- the candidates were considered as instruments of commerce
- "Big Brother" promotes socially undesired behaviour mobbing as principle of the play.
RTL II defended itself by putting forward the following statements:
- the participants are volunteers - "Big Brother" is a play;
- none of them suffered from what happened in the container;
- young viewers were not interested in sex and violence (which really did not happen), but could learn how to behave in such a situation, how to muddle through.
For me "Big Brother" was a very impressive commercial television project conceived on an interesting mixture of issues:
- power and degradation as object of control;
- identity and community;
- social integration and exclusion;
- modern technologies and traditional problems of mankind.
My most important moral objection to "Big Brother" is that the respect for privacy could be in longer terms and in a lingering process be diminished by webcam observation in such a dimension;
the resistance of people against policy surveillance too.


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