The Big Brother Moment

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Aussies have had to endure a lot of trashy reality TV over the last 10 years.

There’s been Australian Idol, Masterchef, Big Brother, The Block, Gordon Ramsay’s various expletive-laden efforts, and the truly dodgy Ladette to Lady.

The common thread running through all these shows can be summed up in one word — banality.

All of them focus on the kissing and crying, the shouting and gossiping. They studiously avoid dealing with anything approaching real issues — except when events on the shows themselves force producers to confront them.

But the flipside is that these shows have mass audiences and viewers form emotional bonds with contestants. This means that when controversial issues are raised they spark genuine debate in the community.

Who can forget Big Brother contestant Merlin Luck’s "Free the Refugees" protest?

On that Sunday night, as the wily activist sat on Gretel Killeen’s eviction couch with his mouth taped shut, hundreds of thousands of teenagers turned to their parents and asked, "What’s he on about?"

You can imagine the awkwardness as oldies across the nation had to scratch their heads and confront issues they never thought they’d have to think about during a relaxed evening of light television.

The next day radio stations, newspapers and current affairs shows across the country had an excuse to dissect a heavy political issue usually the province of hand-wringing political nerds. Suddenly everyone was interested.

But has SBS’s reality TV show Go Back To Where You Came From had the same affect? Has it penetrated the market as deeply and sparked as much debate on the asylum seeker issue?

Well the show certainly set viewer records for SBS. For the past week the publicity flaks at the ethnic broadcaster have been telling anyone who will listen how 851,000 people tuned into the show last week.

For all of that success, can it really compare to a reality show like MasterChef which attracts a million viewers a night and notches up a whopping 3.5 million viewers for a finale? Can it compare to the debate sparked by Merlin Luck’s one man protest on the main stage of Big Brother?

It certainly went well and truly mainstream. Contestants in the show were featured on Sunrise, Mornings with Kerri-Anne, The 7pm Project, A Current Affair, and even on The Kyle and Jackie O Show.

And on the first night #goback was the number one trending topic on Twitter worldwide according to Trendfinder.

The difference lies, of course, in the depth of the debate.

Whereas Go Back To Where You Came From was a comprehensive study of ordinary Australians’ struggle to understand the complex asylum seeker issue, Luck’s protest was a stunt undertaken by a passionate advocate. And unfortunately for him, a lot of commentators played the man and not the ball.

Luck’s then agent Lauren Miller, from celebrity agents Harry M. Miller, believes Luck was very unfairly treated by the media after sparking international headlines with his stunt.

"The national media spotlight on Merlin was enormous but that was one man standing up for the cause, it was totally focussed on him," Miller told New Matilda.

In that light Miller applauds the participants on Go Back To Where You Came From for exposing themselves so openly and honestly on what is an emotional issue for people on all sides of the debate.

"The mass population could identify with Raquel and it did sway their opinions when they saw how it had changed her," says Miller.

"That SBS are brave enough to make longer form programming that’s not cheesy entertainment is fantastic — the challenge is to drive audiences to good original programs.

"It’s been very successful in that it brought it out to a bigger, younger and motivated audience — not just people who are campaigning on it — with good storytelling and well-defined characters which sparked national news and broader interest."

Miller believes social media has been instrumental in snaring the interest of younger viewers so they are prepared to invest in more substantial content.

"When the Merlin thing happened imagine if we’d had Twitter, and how public debate could have been sparked for and against. Social media is helping to bring these issues into the front of people’s minds."

So while Merlin’s protest on Big Brother may have reached younger, less politicised demographics it is unlikely it had the power to change minds or to get people to make an effort to put themselves in the shoes of the planet’s 12 million refugees — unlike SBS’s effort.

So does the success of Go Back To Where You Came From signal a change in reality TV?

After enduring a decade of crass banality, will politically engaged couch potatoes across the nation finally get to watch grown up reality TV they can get their teeth into? That remains to be seen. But surely Go Back To Where You Came From is a step in the right direction.

 

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New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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