Big Brother, widely considered to have kick-started the international reality formats business, turns 20 today.
The show first launched on September 16, 1999 on RTL’s Dutch network Veronica with nine housemates moving into a purpose-built house in Holland equipped with 24 cameras. Some 471 series and 28,391 episodes have subsequently been commissioned in 60 markets, with 7,153 roomates spending 35,143 days in the house with more than 5,000 evictions.
This year alone, 22 productions in 18 markets have aired or are set to air.
To celebrate the anniversary, Deadline spoke to Endemol Shine Group’s chief creative officer Peter Salmon about the format’s longevity, some of the shows’ highs and lows, and how the company plans to keep it going for another 20.
DEADLINE: How similar is the Big Brother format to that original show that launched in Holland 20 years ago?
SALMON: The essential DNA is still in the show. You can recognize the show immediately from the grammar and just from the architecture of the show. It’s had many offspring and spawned many imitators that have also been successful, but Big Brother, as a social experiment, it’s very recognisable. There’s still a freshness in the casting, in the recalibration of the casting, which fits the Big Brother mold. We haven’t strayed too far from the essence of Big Brother, but at the same time, because of tech, new platforms and the way that society has evolved, it’s a very flexible container in which to continue to evolve the issues.
DEADLINE: “If it’s not Dutch, it’s not much” as the saying used to go…
SALMON: Holland has always been such an innovative territory. It’s so sophisticated but they are also so good at making programs. They’re engineers.
DEADLINE: Celebrity Big Brother is beginning to rival the civilian series internationally with 12 productions this year. What is behind the success of one or the other?
SALMON: It waxes and wanes. When you look at Germany, for instance, the celebrity version did really well and it triggered the return of the civilian one. In a bunch of markets, like Spain, Italy and Israel, there are both and in the UK there was both until recently. In India, there are hybrid versions where celebrities and civilians mix together. I feel like that’s really fascinating. In India, there is a fascination with social scale and people at the top and people at the bottom may not engage so much within society but on Big Brother you bring them together and it makes for great theater on television, which is why there’s six versions [across the country]. Big Brother is so flexible that whether it’s gender politics or Brexit or just how do celebrities live, it can do all of that within the same format, very few formats can do that.
DEADLINE: The format launched on CBS in July 2000 and is the second longest-running international adaptation after the Spanish version. It appears to be more of a challenge format in the States — why is that?
SALMON: If you look at a lot of North American shows, they are very gamified and competitive, the viewers like a winner and a strategy. They embrace a good competition, look at Masterchef, it’s a big hit in America but it’s much more competitive than in other markets. Social experiment and entertainment is at the heart of the format, but some versions are all about the talk and the conversation and some are all about strategy. That just says how adaptable the format is.
DEADLINE: In Finland, the house is made with recycled materials and in India there’s waste-water recycling. What do developments like this say about the format?
SALMON: Look at the one in Finland, what’s happening to the environment is really important so the Finnish version. It’s now in a shopping center, this temple of consumerism, which is ironic, but the whole house is built out of recyclable and renewable ideas. It’s not the first house to be eco-friendly, the Germans and the Indians have embraced that as well but what they are embracing is what’s happening to the world. It’s still fun and still engaging and popular, but it is itself its own manifestation. It’s in and out of the public eye in new ways.
DEADLINE: In Spain, episodes were available on YouTube before they aired on linear. What was the strategy behind this?
SALMON: The Spanish are one of the very best production teams in the world. They have a blend of Internet and social and drew huge audiences back to linear television, this marriage between digital and linear and building on that. It’s a natural progression if you want to attract younger fans. It’s really fed younger audiences back into linear, which is really important to us.
DEADLINE: Technology has always been important to the format…
SALMON: Big Brother has always been ahead of its time, it’s always cried out for better tech, whether that’s the platforms it plays on or the robotic cameras that we use in many places to film it or biometrics. It’s always embraced new tech and cried out for more interactivity and social dimensions. In Spain, they’ve taken that to the next place.
DEADLINE: Last year, Channel 5 in the UK canceled both the civilian and celebrity versions. Given it was one of the longest-running versions of the format, what impact did that have on Big Brother?
SALMON: There was very little impact around the world. Because it’s so successful other places, whether that’s the Philippines, where it’s been on for 38 weeks or in Brazil, where it’s had 200M votes for an eviction or on CBS in America, where it’s the number one summer show, it’s not even been a story. The UK is really important but there’s no news about the UK and we’re really enjoying the rest period, we’re always constantly thinking about what’s next in all of the key territories but it’s having a real successful time in a number of territories and we’re a global company and we embrace that.
DEADLINE: I gather you’re looking to get it back on air in major territories including France and Australia as well…
SALMON: If you work in Endemol Shine, it’s a birthright. If you’re one of our production companies, you have access to it first. We talk about it constantly and everybody in the modern television era, knows it sits on top of a pantheon of reality shows. It started it and it’s still going so we’re constantly conscious of it. we have these exchanges where all of our producers get together and talk about the ideas and the stories and the tech and that’s a really great forum for reinventing and relaunching Big Brother or for new ideas in the reality space.
We beat ourselves constantly about moving our shows around the world; we’ve been really good at it and Big Brother is a calling card. It’s rare in most big territories that there isn’t a conversation about it in some shape or form every year. We’re close in a couple of interesting territories to further reboot, but I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. There are constant conversations and exchanges of idea where we’re thinking what’s next.
DEADLINE: It has also been remade in China via Youku in 2015 for one season. Can you see it ever coming back there?
SALMON: There is no territory I can’t see it coming back in. I think we’re living in a flatter earth anyway, we’re all aware of each other’s hits and permutations. That word gets around and then you need to figure out the best way of telling the story. In its near-neighbor India (left), it’s the most successful show on the whole of the Indian sub-continent so why not.
DEADLINE: Big Brother: Over the Top aired on CBS All Access. How can Big Brother thrive in a world of streaming services?
SALMON: It’s already happening. Tech is catching up. It’s an idea about tech, watching people have these conversations so I think we’re thriving in that changing tech landscape. Inevitably, OTT commissioners are thinking about the world but also locally. We’ve played in SVOD, in AVOD in a number of markets, it’s platform agnostic but thriving on the multiplicity of contact points for viewers. It’s waiting as a format to be constantly reinvented. We are activity making shows [for the SVODs], which are local as well as global. I don’t think we see there being any barriers to operating in that way, apart from the brilliance of continually playing in some of those linear partners and territories, there are also other territories where it may well suit streamers ambitions and there are ways that we can produce it and carve out the rights to service their needs as well. I think there’s a lot of flexibility.
DEADLINE: There have been a raft of LGBTQ+ contestants and winners including Bianca Hagenbeek, who is bisexual, in 2000, and Nadia Almada, a transgender woman, winning in the UK in 2005. There are also transgender and homosexual contestants in the Philippines and on the Tamil version. How important is diversity to the format?
SALMON: It was born as a vehicle for diversity; whether it helped cause a more informal age where people were less stuffy and less scared of speaking out and felt like they had a voice. Big Brother has always been about diversity of inclusion and we’re very proud of that and it’s part of our DNA. We always try, and it can be a challenge sometimes for live producers, and fight for the Big Brother house to be this tolerant and inclusive world. There’s been [many] LGBT winners and trans participants and housemates that are non-binary.
DEADLINE: On the flip side of that, there have been some trickier moments including racist incidents such as in the UK with Shilpa Shetty and Jade Goody. How do you deal with those?
SALMON: With live TV, whether it’s a news broadcast or sport or reality, there are these challenges. We’ve learned through experience, sometimes very difficult experience, how to react and get better at reacting. We don’t tolerate bad behaviour, bullying or racism… as soon as we see it, our producers act. It’s not a global diktat, that’s how our producers are trained and how we talk about the format embracing inclusivity. From time to time, does that erupt, is that an unfortunate by-product of live television, of course it is.
DEADLINE: There have been a number of Big Brother spinoffs including Duo in Spain and Secret Story in France. Any other plans in the pipeline?
SALMON: We encourage the format to evolve, we can’t stand still. It continues to change in terms of how the game is played and the technology. We talk to our broadcast partners and producers constantly about moving it on, that’s the reason it’s still operating in 20 territories with multiple series and has a high-return rate. Our producers themselves are the ultimate inventors in this company but we have a lot of experience centrally. We have consultants who support Big Brother and are other big travellers, it’s born out of local needs.
DEADLINE:What’s next for Big Brother and how do you ensure that it continues for another 20 years?
SALMON: You and I would find it hard to predict how Big Brother will evolve over the next 20 years but we know it will be around and we know it has enduring appeal. We are curators of Big Brother. We embrace social and digital, we build long running relationships in the major markets, we embrace new language versions in different territories, we encourage comebacks, we know broadcasters want tentpoles, we think about the pressures that broadcasters are under in terms of price points and ask how we can help them continue to afford it, that’s why we embrace AI and biometrics and lightweight technology. We’re ever watchful. We’re proud of it, it sits at the heart of our DNA, it’s a badge of honor. Big Brother is not stuffy and conservative, it embraces the future, it’s got to continue to do that and I think that’s why we’re banking on it being successful for decades to come.