Charles Dunstone has dramatically withdrawn his support for a lucrative and – for him – highly successful television sponsorship deal. Will anyone else ever touch Channel 4?’ Big Brother sponsorship again? You bet they will, once the dust has settled.
As Oscar Wilde observed long ago, there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. 30,000 (and rising) complaints have meant a lot of talking, enough to give the fraying BB format another lease of life.
The importance of being earnest
And have they talked. Nearly every leading newspaper (including the FT) has reserved space on its front page for the ‘racist’ controversy; not a news bulletin goes by without it featuring; Google already has over a million references to Shilpa Shetty and Celebrity Big Brother; Germaine Greer has emoted on the subject; Mr Brown has been forced on the defensive about an ‘offensive’ programme during his visit to India; Mr Blair has publicly deprecated something he has been careful never to watch. Negative recommendations don’t come much higher than these.
Indeed, the only silence on the subject was a po-faced stoniness from C4, evidently afraid of digging itself deeper into a social and political quagmire. At times its taciturnity descended into farce. As, for example, when C4’s chairman Luke Johnson was grilled on the Today programme and had to resort to a litany of ‘no comments’. Just for a moment, an image of Michael Howard defending his record on the prison service crossed my mind?
Duncan to the rescue
But C4’s flat-footedness was surely redeemed by chief executive Andy Duncan’s subsequent robust defence, in which he uttered a few home truths about the mountain of cant and pious attitudinising generated by the controversy. “In my view,” he said, “it is unquestionably a good thing that the programme has raised these issues and provoked such a debate. These attitudes, however distasteful, do persist – we need to confront the truth.”
Herein lies the dilemma for any potential sponsor of the programme (not to mention C4’s high command, who must consider the liabilities, financial and otherwise). Is BB really entertainment masquerading as social experiment, or the other way around? We shall find out shortly.
A Roman holiday?
If the first, we can expect future productions to be bowdlerised, which will ostensibly make BB more sponsorship friendly. But the difficulty in censoring awkward truths is that their suppression will eventually sap the format’s strength.
That strength lies in a powerful and unflattering appeal to a baser human instinct: voyeurism. The present hullabaloo is not really about racism at all (though there are racist undertones in the language used). The contestants are engaged, with the audience’s approval, in a no-holds barred gladiatorial contest where there can be only one winner. It is the Colosseum without explicit violence. In that respect, sponsors get exactly what they pay for – thrills, spills and plenty of risk. They should not be surprised if they are occasionally mauled by the lions.