When television production company Endemol brought the hit reality show Big Brother to Africa, it would be the first time Africans from twelve different countries were placed under the magnified lens of reality TV. Love it or hate it, there is no denying the interest and popularity of the 24-hour voyeurism that is Big Brother. The $100,000 prize money for the winner of the first Big Brother Africa was a major incentive for the 12 housemates to participate, but like housemates worldwide there was the added benefit of a taste of fifteen minutes of fame. Once a housemate leaves the house, be it after two weeks or 100 days, they seem to follow the same fame-led career paths. Television appearances, a chart single, a radio presenter spot here and there, a charity project, and then they disappear into the land of 'former' reality TV stars.
In comparison to similar editions worldwide the African Big Brother contestants seem to carry a higher responsibility or burden than others. They don't only enter the house representing themselves, they are viewed as representatives of their country. As each housemate makes their entrance into the house, they do so waving the flag of their country, sometimes dressed in their traditional clothing, sometimes speaking to the viewers in their country in their local language like an ambassador on a platform that is rife with opportunities for controversy and criticism.
During the first season, the show was taken off air and banned in Malawi. The parliament felt the show to be morally corrupting to children, in spite of the show’s parental guidance warnings and restrictions. While other countries were also in favor of banning the show, the ratings made it apparent that viewership of the show wasn’t affected by negative press and threats. Although Malawi overturned the ban, it didn’t stop other countries from threatening to ban the program, albeit unsuccessfully.
While the actions, comments and opinions from politicians, parents and religious institutions may seem backwards and prudish to some, I find it completely understandable that a show like Big Brother would shock the way it did and continues to do. Generally, an African country’s program line-up on a terrestrial station will be less provocative and more conservative than that of your average worldwide local or terrestrial station. There isn’t much profanity, nudity and violence in entertainment programming and there was no reality TV, a genre that thrives on being provocative and sensational.
It was as recent as 1995 when South African company Multichoice launched DSTV, a cable satellite service that would serve and reign as the number one cable network on the continent. DSTV would screen the daily show to 47 countries as well as 24/7 unedited coverage in later seasons. The nudity, drunken nights, sex, romance, fights, political debates and personality clashes were a producers dream, but the innocence of the airwaves had never before experienced such a cocktail of exhibitionists, entertainers and personalities to an audience of over 30 million viewers.
Earlier this month the seventh season of Big Brother premiered and while it is highly unlikely that this season will escape controversy, seven years is a long time to get used to the idea of televised reality in Africa. The nationality of the housemates is imperative to the promotion and competition of the show but it isn't the essence of it. A twenty year old contestant can't operate as an ambassador for a country. There need not be any pity parties either, the housemates are there by choice - it isn't George Orwell's 1984. If the message wasn't clear seven years ago, hopefully it's clear now: Big Brother Africa isn’t an extension of an African Union summit, it is entertainment, anyone expecting more will only be hit with 'reality'.