“Day 5971 in the Big Brother Office. Andrea and Brian are reviewing the financial reports for Q2 against the strategic plan, while John, Estelle and Marco are brainstorming concepts for the re-branding task. Becki, who earlier today complained that no-one else helps with the cleaning of the house, is in the kitchen with Mohammed, talking about some of the other officemates. Later today, officemates will learn how many of them will be leaving the office on Friday.”

Sounds familiar? The Big Brother format – although its audience is dwindling, as we become overly accustomed to the idea (and those participating in what was originally at least an experiment in behavioural observation have become increasingly ‘in on the game’) – has become part of the British cultural landscape. Like any reality contestant programme, there are lessons to be learned – for the makers in delivering watchable television, and for the contestants in dignity and maturity. But although BB may not be as obviously ‘work-related’ as The Apprentice, I think it does offer a few general lessons for most of those watching it that go beyond ‘put the Pringles down, turn the tv off and exercise more often’.

That the Big Brother house is not an office is a blindingly obvious truism. But then, I don’t watch The Apprentice for its realism either. (I don’t watch it at all, by and large, as the screeching of caged egos and the endless parade of backstabbing and incompetence isn’t my idea of either education or entertainment.) While we see the various would-be apprentices ‘performing’ their task, we see little of their non-specifically task-focused interaction: there’s no water cooler or canteen, no small talk over the sandwiches. In the belief – rightly or wrongly – that the audience is tuning in for protracted bouts of verbal violence, the focus is mostly on people – let’s not mince words – slagging each other off. If it has lessons for us, they’re not in how to provide constructive feedback.

Big Brother, by contrast, gives us hours of people cooking dinner, smoking in the garden, lying on sofas and talking rubbish. (Wherein lies its greater authenticity, of course.) While the format plainly isn’t work – someone is going to get fired every week, everyone has to spend 24 hours a day together and share a bedroom, there’s no email or newspapers or mobiles, offices don’t have a Diary Room (your choices are hiding in the loo or your boss asking if ‘you have five minutes’) – in some ways, the parallels are actually stronger. For long periods of time, the contestants can’t escape each other; they’ve all been chosen, but not by each other; and the sheer duration exposes everyone’s foibles. And while, unlike the workplace, everyone gets a vote as to who may be next for the push, people’s impact on those around them is a key part in their longer-term success or failure.

Just like in actual reality (as opposed to its televised counterpart), contestants undergo a series of tasks that are not of their own making. If everyone is going to continue to enjoy privileges – or square meals – some or all of them must succeed. Basically, everyone has to pull their weight. Even outside the strictly task-related elements, everyone must find a role to play and a contribution to make that adds to the overall quality of the experience for at least the majority.

In terms of measuring unpopularity, it’s instructive to look at the common criticisms that are levelled at ‘failing’ housemates in each series – not just by those incarcerated with them, but those at home texting in or joining studio debates. If there are crimes of popularity – as opposed to crimes of rule-breaking – they are remarkably consistent: being fake or insincere, ‘having a game plan’ (ie their actions are guided primarily by their own agenda), and either actively generating ill-will or arguments or being insensitive to others. These are the behaviours that break down the functioning of the house and make the challenge of participating unnecessarily difficult. In dealing with the people around us as we negotiate life, we appreciate those who act positively, supportively and authentically – and are repelled by those who appear selfish or negative.

And there’s also a lesson for those who arrive mainly desperate for their ’15 minutes’, thrilled to be on camera, and exhibiting all the depth, sophistication and mature finesse of a thin-crust margarita pizza. Those more interested in staging The Scantily Clad (as opposed to Naked) Ape for the world’s benefit and who appear to read only their own reviews rarely become the D-list slebs that they aspire to be. By and large, it’s also true to say that their inappropriate behaviour doesn’t deliver them any better an experience than those around them: as we’ve commented here in a different context, ignorance isn’t necessarily bliss – not even for the ignorant, let alone their acquaintances.

On the other hand, those who see the experience as an opportunity for feedback and a chance to learn about themselves can become increasingly popular – with their fellow contestants and the public alike – as a series progresses. While it’s the stuff of media cliché to talk about people ‘going on a journey’, some people do visibly use the experience – and up to 13 weeks as a captive, televised spectacle is certainly the kind of intense experience that should be informative – to learn and grow. (That a number of ‘unusual’ contestants – a Tourettes sufferer, a transsexual, a newly ‘out’ gay man – have won their respective series possibly supplies another lesson: that people who have questioned their lives and their relationship to others, learnt to accept and come to terms with themselves can invoke and inspire the respect and admiration of others. There’s an interesting interview at The Guardian with the 2004 winner, Nadia Almada.)

Working life isn’t, of course, a simple popularity contest. (Even on Big Brother, simple, bland pleasantness isn’t a sure-fire recipe for survival: it seems it takes a little grit to manufacture even the most metaphorical artificial pearl.) We’re not here just to endear ourselves or entertain others. But it’s still worth remembering that 13 weeks of irritating behaviour, slacking, back-stabbing and slovenliness could lead to something rather more unpleasant – although hopefully more instructive – than meeting Davina McCall and posing for the paparazzi on your way out. It’s cold outside, and there may well be nominations taking place behind closed doors.

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