'Big Brother' changed TV, Dutch creator says 10 years on

'Big Brother' changed TV, Dutch creator says 10 years on

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John de Mol, the Dutch creator of the voyeuristic "Big Brother" reality show that turned 10 in September, never doubted his late-night flash of inspiration would change television forever.

"I told my team, even before the first episode was aired: there will come a time when people will talk about an era in television before 'Big Brother' and one after 'Big Brother'," the billionaire media baron told AFP recently at his office in the affluent town of Laren in the western Netherlands.

"They looked at me like I was mad."

The money-spinning series, now synonymous with the phenomenon of "reality television", has seen tens of thousands of hours of footage filmed and broadcast in more than 60 countries including the United States, in Asia and across Europe, Africa and the Arab world.

Participants in "Big Brother", currently on air in 36 countries, subject themselves to 24/7 camera scrutiny while locked up together in a house for about 100 days -- even their ablutions are not private.

Among the show's strongest drawing cards are the "shower hour" and occasional sexual interludes -- all filmed as the "housemates" navigate a mine-field of social intrigue vying to outlast their competitors and take home a cash prize.

"There is a bit of a voyeur in each of us," De Mol offers as part of the reason for the show's success.

"When you walk in the street tonight and there is a lounge with the curtains open, you will look inside. Everyone has that. Call it voyeurism, I call it curiosity."

The 54-year-old tycoon said the idea for the programme hit him one night in 1997, as he was unwinding with colleagues after a fruitless brainstorming session for a new programme for Catholic public radio.

He set up a working group codenamed Project X to flesh out the idea in the utmost secrecy. "I was afraid it would leak out," he confessed.

It took a year to put together a workable show format and solve the technical and financial constraints -- another year to find a willing broadcaster.

'I created reality television'

"It was very expensive, and few dared to do it," said De Mol. "It was very controversial. There was a lot of negative publicity: people saying you can't do this, you can't lock people up for 100 days, you can't put cameras in the toilet ... all that nonsense."

Despite widespread moral outrage, more than 10,000 people applied to take part in the first series broadcast in the Netherlands from 16 September 1999.

De Mol, a co-founder of entertainment company Endemol which has produced other hit reality programmes including "Deal Or No Deal", "Fear Factor" and "Extreme Makeover" after "Big Brother's" success, dismissed what he called "conservative" criticism of the concept.

"To participate in 'Big Brother', and to win, you need a form of social intelligence, a special way of interacting with people. Everyone can learn from that.

"I think you learn more about life from watching 'Big Brother' than from reading a book," said De Mol, who has since left Endemol to start a new company, Talpa Media, producing reality programmes like "Dating in the Dark".

Jaap Kooijman, media academic at the University of Amsterdam, sees "Big Brother" as "a turning point for reality TV" -- early versions of which included such programmes as "Candid Camera", in which hidden cameras filmed ordinary people reacting to unusual, scripted scenarios.

"One may have criticism of the ethical questions, of the so-called degradation of society's values," said Kooijman.

"But there are such diverse things on offer on TV that it would be difficult to argue that one genre alone is dragging down the standard."

Highlights of "Big Brother" around the world have included a contestant giving birth, a race row and a housemate threatening another with a knife.

Does this go too far? "Yes and no," said De Mol. "These things also happen in real life. And this is called reality television ... a mirror of the world."

Ironically, De Mol says he is camera shy and insists he could never subject himself to the type of scrutiny popularised by the show.

"I prefer not to be in the spotlight."

According to Forbes magazine the programme helped make him the world's 334th richest man in 2009 and puts his wealth at two billion dollars, though in good Dutch Calvinist fashion De Mol says he prefers not to talk about money.

Named after the all-seeing Big Brother in George Orwell's novel "1984", the programme enters its 11th series in the United States this year and its 12th in Britain.

"'Big Brother' is synonymous with a genre of television that will never disappear," said De Mol.

"If you ask me what I am proud of, that is it: I created the genre of reality television."

Mariette le Roux / AFP / Expatica

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