Over the last few months in the UK, there has been a fierce debate regarding the ethics of television. This has been fuelled by a number of scandals around racism, sexism and homophobia in reality TV shows (Celebrity Big Brother, the recent series of 'ordinary' Big Brother, now Hell's Kitchen); 'rip-off' or fabricated viewer phone-ins; and general concern over hypercommercialization in less regulated areas of satellite and cable TV, such as the quiz channels that occupy the obscure reaches of the satellite listings. Public trust in viewer participation formats seems to be at a low ebb.
The parlous state of some British television, and surely one of the forces driving the exodus away from the medium among the under-30s was brought home to me last Friday.
I was watching a Channel 4 programme about what had happened to the latest Big Brother contestants following the end of the series. There were the usual tours of radio and TV studios, tabloid photo sessions, and so on. There was also a rather heated argument between two of the housemates: Charley and Chanelle. The argument itself was not interesting, but one of Charley's outbursts was. At one point, she started singing the hook line from the well-known Janis Joplin song 'Mercedes Benz' (you know it: "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz").
Charley proceeded to boastfully explain that she had sung that line regularly during her time in the Big Brother house because she had been 'sponsored' by Mercedes to do so. She went on to state that she had been rewarded with a Mercedes sports car. This particular scene lasted only a few seconds, then it was off to the next photo session, and so on.
Was it true? Well, yes: she did sing that song on several occasions while in the house.
Did she get the car for doing so? This is where it becomes more difficult. We do not know. A web search has thrown up nothing more than a speculative thread on the entertainment and gossip website Digital Spy.
Let's suppose it is true. If it is, this was one of those rare, often very brief, moments which seem to crystallise something perfectly. The great hopes for participatory television formats, especially the sense of wonder at Big Brother when it first emerged, must now be put in contexts such as this: a housemate (possibly) 'sponsored' by a car manufacturer to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds, to spread brand awareness by behaving in a deceptively spontaneous manner.
And then we wonder why the participatory web has taken off so rapidly. People are turning to it for multiple reasons, but authenticity must surely be one of them.
[Crossposted from my Internet Politics blog].