The reality show's relaunch this week could give it a fresh start ? but it may struggle to find wide media support
Nearly 11 years to the day since "Nasty" Nick Bateman's confrontation with Craig Phillips first made Big Brother a bone fide TV phenomenon, the daddy of all reality show's has its second coming on Thursday on its new home, Channel 5.
The Richard Desmond-owned broadcaster is promising the "friskiest ever" series when the new-look Celebrity Big Brother begins this week.
No one is expecting a return the halcyon days of the early noughties when Big Brother regularly brought Channel 4 audiences of 4 million plus, big online audiences and page after page of tabloid coverage throughout the summer months.
However, the trick for production company Endemol and executives at Channel 5 ? which declined to put up anyone to talk about the show ? will be to revive a format tarnished by the Shilpa Shetty race row and several years of declining audiences and tabloid interest before C4 finally dropped it in September 2010.
In the intervening period the reality genre has also moved in a new direction, with so-called "constructed reality" shows such as The Only Way is Essex and Geordie Shore all the rage. It is also unclear whether the Sun, Daily Mirror and celebrity magazines will embrace Big Brother as of old, now that it is being broadcast by a channel that is part of a Desmond media empire that also includes rival titles the Daily Express, Daily Star and OK!.
One senior source involved in the Big Brother relaunch says an enduring factor in the show's success or failure lies in having characters that people want to watch, whether they like or loathe them, with "casting a number one priority".
"You can talk about constructed reality all you like but this is still a huge show," says the insider. "And in any case shows such as Towie and Geordie Shore are popular for the same reason as Big Brother ? characters."
Among the many names touted for the return of Celebrity Big Brother are Irish pop duo Jedward, Pamela Anderson and the Speaker's wife, Sally Bercow. There has also been speculation that the broadcaster has tried (and failed) to secure Mike Tyson, Charlie Sheen and, perhaps most bizarrely, Aleksandr Orlov, the meerkat from the Comparethemarket.com adverts.
There are likely to be only minor tweaks to the tried and tested format, with continuity the order of the day. Early previews show a familiar-looking house at Big Brother's long-established Elstree base; Geordie narrator Marcus Bentley returns, as does the scope for producer-led surprises. The eye logo looks similar, albeit a tad smarter.
Davina McCall is being replaced by Brian Dowling, the series two winner turned TV presenter and the contestant voted Big Brother's best in a number of polls. C5 is dropping the Big Brother's Little Brother and Big Mouth spin-offs in favour of Big Brother's Bit on the Side, hosted by Emma Willis. And the live internet feed is understood to be a thing of the past, although the revived show will offer some social networking innovations in its bid to meet the needs of what C5 expects to be a "very young audience".
C5 generally attracts lower audiences than C4, so the bar is set lower for what will constitute a ratings success. The show drew an average of 4.7 million viewers for its first C4 series in 2000 and had a peak average of 5.8 million for series three, but steadily declined until series 11 in 2010, when it averaged just 2.9 million. C5's average audience for the 9pm hour so far this year is 1.4 million, while last year's August average for the channel between 8pm and 10pm was 1.25 million.
Endemol, buoyed by a successful series of the US version of Big Brother on CBS this summer, is understood to be quietly confident it will succeed on C5, and many media buyers and analysts tend to agree.
"Editorially I think the show will be more punchy on C5, and if anything will be more risqu�," says Adrian English, head of broadcast at media agency Carat UK. Media consultant Dominic Finney from FaR Partners believes the show could exploit the "digital version of watercooler moments" through platforms such as Twitter. "I can't see why the C5 audience wouldn't embrace it in all its tacky glory," adds Andrew Stothert, of branding agency Brand Vista.
Peter Grimsdale, the former C4 commissioning editor who oversaw Big Brother series three across all platforms, believes that C5 could do worse than offer "classic Big Brother" without the gimmicks and rule-breaking (such as bringing back evicted contestants) which he believes marred later C4 series. "Sometimes it tried to be innovative for its own sake, and that often doesn't work," says Grimsdale.
But it's a suggestion that is rejected the one senior source on the C5 version. "To do that you would have to go back in time and not even Richard Desmond could do that. When the show started it was innocent and it was still interesting to watch someone brushing their teeth because the format was so new. But as people got used to it this box of tricks opened up which we fully intend to use to defy viewer expectations. Using the box of tricks is in fact classic Big Brother and what you will see on Channel 5 is very recognisable Big Brother."
However, the so-called "Neighbours phenomenon" is a source of anxiety. The Australian soap finished its run on BBC1 on a Friday in 2008 and lost about 300,000 viewers when it tipped up on C5 the following Monday. "Quite why the loyal fans wouldn't press the five button is still a mystery," says the Big Brother source. "And of course we are fully expecting some loyal Big Brother viewers not to tune in."
Rumours that the ambitious talent grab could mean cuts to the production budget for Celebrity Big Brother are denied by show insiders.
The programme source insists that Desmond, while getting "seriously involved" in the production, has frequently deferred to Endemol and has "very much put his money where his mouth is" on the budget. "Richard is not na�ve about it. In fact he understands Big Brother better than most, given he owns a stable of newspapers and showbiz magazines. He knows it needs money."
Grimsdale agrees that Big Brother is more likely to work at C5 than C4, which he feels was embarrassed by it at times. "At Channel 4 it became a debased coinage ? every year that went on they tried to push it further and further and I really think they should have axed it on a high after three years or so," he says. "It was like crack ? they wanted to squeeze everything out of it. Channel 5 is more straightforwardly commercial so they probably won't have a problem with that."
Stuart Cosgrove, a C4 commissioning editor throughout the BB years and still at the broadcaster, is less sure, convinced that viewer overfamiliarity has meant that it now seems "less fresh and innovative". "For years we basked in its glow ? but it is the same with all shows, and we will start to see it with The X Factor."
One key to Big Brother's success was its hand-in-glove relationship with the press. The show got wall-to-wall coverage, and the red-tops and showbiz magazines could liven up the summer silly season each year with of a fresh batch of instant celebrities who were already familiar to their readers, such as Nadia Almada and Nikki Grahame.
Desmond's titles, including the Daily Star, Daily Express and OK!, have been pushing the show for months already, but it remains to be seen whether their rivals will embrace Big Brother as warmly as they did before.
"If other papers don't write about it, it's dead," admits the Big Brother insider. One senior Sun news executive told MediaGuardian that the paper will wait to see how it takes off. A Daily Mail journalist adds: "We haven't been interested for years ? the show simply doesn't move the dial that much."
However, if C5's Big Brother revamp produces a new Nasty Nick, or priceless moments like George Galloway pretending to be a cat, then viewers will return and the newspapers will have little option but to cover it.
"It was a great show and I would hate to see it fail," says Grimsdale, who believes it will succeed if the production team "go for the most interesting people, not the maddest or the flakiest".
The Reality or Exploitation session at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International TV Festival takes place on Saturday 27 August. More details at www.mgeitf.co.uk