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What is this channel for?
30 January 2007

Channel Four logo

Sarita Malik questions the status of Channel Four's original remit after the Celebrity Big Brother furore

Now that we can begin to look back at 2007’s Celebrity Big Brother with the benefit of hindsight, the major upshot – aside from a surefire boost to Shilpa Shetty’s international career following her win – will be the critical attention paid to Channel 4’s role. CBB is on course to draw more complaints (currently over 40,000) than any other programme in British television history. With Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson saying there will be an inquiry into the ‘editorial and compliance processes that support’ the programme, questions are being asked about exactly where the channel, currently lobbying for government money, draws its boundaries of expediency.

a unique conception of public service broadcasting was promised

When a major academic conference assessing Channel 4’s 25-year history takes place later this year, one of the more interesting presentations might consider the relationship between the CBB furore and Channel 4’s original remit for ethnic minority representation. As the only channel set up with a dedicated multicultural programmes department and commissioning editor, a unique conception of public service broadcasting was promised.

When that specialist department was shut down in 2002, Channel 4 declared that the real future of ethnic minority representation was in mainstream programming. At the time it could hardly have anticipated a more bizarre validation of ‘mainstreaming multiculturalism’ than the recent ‘race row’. Minority representation, yes. Mainstream, yes. But the international spotlight and copious complaints to their regulator about alleged racist bullying could hardly have been part of that vision.

And yet one doubts that many of those who took offence at CBB did so primarily because they felt betrayed by what has traditionally been perceived as the most ‘minority-friendly’ terrestrial channel. If so, why did they not protest as loudly when targeted multicultural spaces were axed? Or did they believe that the ‘new multiculturalism’ and plan to ‘go mainstream’, as Channel 4 executives spun it, was based on cultural intelligence rather than commercial pressure?

What about Channel 4’s continuing strategic pledge to cultural and other diversity (‘it lies at the heart of our remit’), which the rest of Europe and the world have long recognised as a perfect model of diversity-aware media? Perhaps the introduction to Channel 4’s Statement of Promises sheds some light: ‘The Channel needs commercial success in order to fund projects of ambition and risk and to support the range and diversity of its suppliers.’ If the handling of CBB was a means to an end, then big questions need to be asked.

The Big Brother brand is Channel 4’s largest money-earner, and accounts for approximately 10 per cent of its revenue

The viewing figures for CBB plummeted to below 3 million in the first week and gradually rose in tandem with the media focus and complaints, peaking at 8.8 million on the evening of the carefully stage-managed eviction of Jade Goody. The Big Brother brand is Channel 4’s largest money-earner, and accounts for approximately 10 per cent of its revenue. So did Channel 4 prioritise commercial success over its diversity mantra? Did it maximise profits by maximising conflict? Was it, as Tessa Jowell suggested, ‘racism being presented as entertainment’, and if so, at what cost?

More fundamentally, can a broadcaster that claims to champion diversity afford to take such a sluggish response to criticisms of racism, and manage any potential fallout so clumsily? How could it be that viewers were rapidly taking offence several days before the climactic ‘stock-cube showdown’, yet Channel 4 stayed quiet? (Stranger still because Channel 4 was already in some trouble with Ofcom for not intervening during a ‘distressing’ incident in 2004’s Big Brother.)

Or was there, in fact, an intention by Channel 4 to expose the real face of prejudice in our midst? But would any other institution (the police-force or a university perhaps) sustain a target-busting employee if they had also demonstrated bullying tendencies? Should racism or bullying – or indeed racist bullying – be buttressed or left uninterrupted on TV any more than it should elsewhere in society? Such ambiguities sit oddly alongside the organisation’s cultural diversity, and indeed public service, remit.

The so-called codes and conventions of the reality TV genre only muddle things further. At what point does the programme-maker, in a format with such broad claims to be showing ‘truth’, step in and be seen to deliberately take control?

the real codes of reality TV demand that it is never left uninterrupted

Channel 4’s non-intervention as the gang bullying intensified was defended with an alibi of genre-etiquette; that is, the producers could not be seen to ‘intrude’ and spoil the natural order of things in the house. Of course, the real codes of reality TV demand that it is never left uninterrupted by the manoeuvring of those in the business of programme-making (who devise tasks, edit strategically, interview provocatively, and so on) in order to generate interest.

As reality TV expands and reality formats go global, other broadcasters – in spite of different media models and political traditions – may well face similar issues. How differently would an Indian broadcaster, for example, react if a similar situation arose in Big Boss (the Indian version of the original Dutch Big Brother, recently launched by Endemol)? The real ‘culture clash’ in this story is how cultural differences are negotiated and represented in the very public arena of ‘world television’.

Digitalisation, the internet and interactive media, as well as broadening our viewing options, are making it easier to complain, mobilise discontent and vocalise opinion internationally. For better or worse, there is real pressure for broadcasters (and indeed artists, filmmakers and other cultural practitioners) to consider not just local but global sensitivities.

In spite of the recent spread of global formats (Big Brother, The Kumars at No. 42, Pop Idol, Wife Swap and X Factor have all been launched and aggressively marketed abroad), deep differences among world audiences exist. While many Indians have been affronted to see their homeland and ‘their’ celebrity so publicly criticised in CBB, some English people have displayed what probably amounts to a deep-seated resentment that a ‘foreigner’ is now competing for the top prize on a reality TV show that they had presumed belonged to them. There is a peculiar and municipal kind of xenophobia and territorialism at work here. Channel 4, already using CBB to validate its position as the channel that pushes boundaries, will need to negotiate some of these concerns if it wants the world to keep watching.

Sarita Malik writes on race and culture and is the author of Representing Black Britain

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Links

Back from the brink: Farrukh Dhondy, former commissioning editor at Channel 4, looks at Celebrity Big Brother from an Indian perspective.

From bullying Britain to Britishness lessons: Big Brother continues to feature in Catalyst's look at the week's press


Commission for Racial Equality

Publisher of Catalyst Magazine, the CRE works to create a just and integrated society, where diversity is valued.

openDemocracy

Independent political discussion and debate based on exchange and participation.

Prospect Magazine

A political magazine, Prospect also includes features on arts and culture, science, economics, history, social affairs and philosophy.

Runnymede Trust

The Runnymede Trust promotes a successful multi-ethnic Britain.

Institute of Race Relations

The Institute of Race Relations is a race relations thinktank.

EUMC

The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Social policy research and development.

For more links, see our new links page.

Search Catalyst

Search For:


Promote Catalyst

If you are able to promote Catalyst in your workplace, university etc, please download our poster, a pdf which can be printed at A4 or A3 size.

Small print

Contributor and illustrator information

Articles published in Catalyst do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Commission for Racial Equality.

For advertising or editorial enquiries, please .

rss logo | What is RSS?

This page was last updated on 30/01/2007 16:54:38

 

© Commission for Racial Equality 2007

 

CRE 30 years logo