Analysed formats and programmes

>> Overview target group 6/7-13 years


The significance of Big Brother for children and pre-teens

Big Brother actually is a programme which was primarily aimed at the younger part of the advertising target group, the 19- to 39-year-olds. But the ratings showed its enormous success with the adolescents and the marketing-share is even high among the 6- to 13-year-olds.

Of course, we know that children and pre-teens do not only watch classic children's television, but also programmes which are not at first intended for them. However, we have a particular social responsibility for that younger audience. In order to evaluate the meaning of Big Brother for children and pre-teens, and to take positive and problematic moments of reception into consideration, reception studies are necessary.

It is difficult to understand the mass enthusiasm for the programme, even among adolescents and adults. But what does the programme mean to children? How is the programme integrated into everyday life and how is it to be educationally assessed? In order to give at least a first impression of the Big Brother reception by 6- to 13-year-olds we (the Internationales Zentralinstitut für das Jugend- und Bildungsfernsehen (IZI)) carried out a qualitative study .1

The investigation is embedded in an approach involving cultural studies and qualitative reception research focusing on everyday life.

To understand what fascinates children and pre-teens at Big Brother it is necessary to see the programme as a part of everyday life. Here it can have individual meaning in approaching personal themes. It can provide symbolic material for phrasing and expression of 'self-conception' and fantasies, this means subjective-thematic function.

But it also can be the concrete situation of reception that is of particular significance, as a situational function or have special interactive function.

We investigated 51 individual open interviews with children and pre-teens who regularly watched the first session of Big Brother. With open questions like: "Have you ever dreamt of Big Brother? What does it look like, when you’re normally watching Big Brother " we tried to approach the meaning of the format Big Brother in everyday life of the 6- to 13–year-olds.

The significance of the medium is revealed from the subjective meaningful perspective, which subsequently enables an assessment to be made from an educational and gender-specific perspective.

The sample certainly does not allow any generally valid statements to be made. Nevertheless this qualitative investigation shows the typical integration of the programme and helps us to understand and assess the phenomenon of Big Brother. Below I will give you a brief summary of some of the results.

At first there was a tendency for age-specific differences to emerge which became particularly clear on the border between primary and secondary school.

In the case of primary school children a regular reception of Big Brother is integrated into the parents' positive attitude towards this format. All of them said that they watched the programme with their parents and/or their siblings and they are the ones to whom they most frequently talked about Big Brother.

The situational function of Big Brother of primary school children: togetherness and above all staying up late

From the children's point of view the programme had mainly a situational function. It was firmly integrated into the evening ritual and because the show is broadcast in the prime time, it had an important result for the children: they were allowed to stay up later. Accordingly this is also the most frequently mentioned change in the children's life which they themselves noticed. A typical variant regarding situational functions Big Brother took over is Lina eight years old:

"First I get ready and then I go upstairs, (...) and then I cuddle up to mummy in bed and watch a bit of Big Brother with her." For Lina Big Brother is a kind of bedtime story which she experiences with her brother and/or her mother.

Big Brother: The fantasy of adults who have time and care for children

As for content, the primary school children tend to stress mainly the togetherness in the group: in Big Brother people do something in common and have fun together. Several primary school children read Big Brother as a togetherness which is characterised mainly by the fact that here adults have time to play and entertain each other. This gave rise to fantasies of a kind of "ideal parents" or "elder brothers and sisters".

So for primary school children it is particularly the togetherness and harmony that are important. They sit with their parents in front of the television and look at the togetherness, which opens up fantasies of adults who have time.

Big Brother as adaptation to the peer-group

In the case of the pre-teens, responses that parents or siblings also watch the programme drop considerably. Now it is friends who account for 80% of those they talk to on the subject of Big Brother. For quite a few the format "just" was above all an "obligation" in the peer-group.

Mareika (12 years): "At school everybody was always talking about it."

Thessa (11 years): "Everyone said Big Brother was really cool. So then I started watching it myself as well."

The large-scale advertising campaign, to which the public discussion also made its contribution, especially for pre-teens, produced pressure. Even if the programme did not necessarily pick their own themes, it still had to be switched on regularly so that they could join in the conversations the next day.

Big Brother as an aesthetic style

Here the format is used as part of the youth culture. Big Brother as a large media- and event arrangement became part of everyday aesthetic style. To wear signs of the programme, to discuss it at the school yard shows oneself as young, cheeky and authentic. It is a distinction against the older generation and against the dominance of cultural refinement.

The format is here referring to current tendencies in youth culture and extends them even more.

Big Brother as an extension of Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten

A considerable number of girls regularly watched Germany's most successful daily soap opera Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten (Good times, bad times) before Big Brother. In addition to opportunities for communication, both programmes offer parasocial integration, the feeling of closeness among friends. Apart from the beautiful young figures of Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten, now ten more "friends" come home every evening.

Boys use Big Brother subjective-thematic to discuss the issue of being a man

In the case of a number of boys, conversation each morning turned to Big Brother, and it revolved around the behaviour of the male figures. In this way the boys are offered a socially accepted opportunity to discuss the subject of being a man. In the last few years critical research into masculinity has increasingly worked out (cf eg Cornell, 1999, Hollstein, 1999) how traditional images of manliness have to a great extent lost their function of providing boys with guidance. Authenticity, being "normal" and witty are the new ideals for boys - at least in Germany (cf Winter/Neubauer, 1998, 149, also Zimmermann, 1999). Big Brother seems to be acting out this authenticity of people – especially men. In particular the figures of Zlatko and Jürgen appeared as the personification of being authentic and witty.

Mario (13 years): "I'd love to be Zlatko. Or Jürgen."

Replying to the question as to what has changed in his life since he has been watching Big Brother, he says spontaneously and with complete conviction: "More entertainment. Life is funnier. And I have a model: Jürgen."

For these pre-teens - mostly boys, also some girls - Big Brother is integrated into an everyday aesthetic style, young, cheeky and authentic. The format is here referring to current tendencies in youth culture and extends them even more.

Besides traditional concepts of masculinity other concepts are developed in fantasies, including care and house-hold work. So 13-year-old Tim for example said:

"I would like to be like Zlatko - only that I would love to do the cooking, that the Zlatko don’t do!"

This was the ritualised task of another male character, John. Tim combines aspects of different male characters, and thus adds caring aspects to body-orientated macho-like masculinity.

Apart from these surely positive opportunities for boys to deal with male images, it is precisely in the gender-specific perspective that problematic areas emerge. For in the depiction of the female participants the images more frequently lapsed into sexist relegation. While the male figures are eroticised and shown with their abilities, female characters are devaluated as sexual objects and produced as sneaky. Here the format of gender-stereotypes and -hierarchies is reinforced, and this as can be shown is taken up by the boys.

Children and pre-teens take up the subject of exclusion

The sexualisation of the female figures is not the only problematic aspect in the subjectively meaningful appropriation of Big Brother. The pre-teens in particular, and here especially the boys, picked another element from the programme and integrated it into their interpretation pattern: the exclusion and relegation of unpopular characters.

The basic concept of the programme is a hybrid format of a documentary, edited according to the present modes of soap operas and it is a behaviour- and personality-orientated game show (cf Mikos, 2000, 205). Participants are neither nominated and voted out because of certain specific abilities or knowledge nor is it luck that plays the decisive part. In Big Brother people are voted out as a whole, that means because of their (acted) disposition, their opinions or other factors. The basic principle of the game is therefore to vote people out of the game who are not wanted any longer. This is in its principle a personality-orientated exclusion.

While in most of the 51 interviews with regular viewers of Big Brother the togetherness and the pleasure in successful everyday life were given top priority, for some it is the enjoyment of exclusion that plays an important part. This was often the case when the fear of someone being expelled was an important action-determining theme. They find this basic theme again in Big Brother, and it backs up their assumption: anyone who is unpopular is expelled and has to go. On the societal level these exclusion mechanisms are extremely problematic.

Let me finally summarise and stress this last argument once more:

Conclusion: The themes of togetherness and everyday life that are given priority conceal the interpretation patterns of exclusion

Big Brother is a sort of staging of everyday life. "Quite normal" men and women are apparently shown who together work out their everyday life and resolve problems. It is also these moments of togetherness which primary school children emphasise.

Here they could watch how problems can be solved, conflicts be overcome and how the modern idea of being a man can turn out. The role of parasocial friends who could be relied on to come into the living room every evening like the figures of the daily soaps. The programme seemed to be an easily digestible evening entertainment.

On the other hand the surface structure, however, conceals what lies beneath it. This is not only the gender-specific sexualisation but also exclusion for not conforming to normal behaviour. Children adopt this interpretation especially when recognition and being "in" or "out" often becomes a decisive orientation factor.

The pressure to be "normal", that means not to drop out, is part of the background to the efforts of many older children and adolescents to have the "right" style, with which they are not excluded and appear "normal".

Big Brother, as a media arrangement, offered them, on the one hand, the guarantee not to stand alone because (in the case of the first session) everybody watched it.

On the other hand, it is precisely a symbolisation of this mechanism, in which one must not deviate from the norm and has to support the correct opinion and correct interests.

On the surface structure Big Brother seems to be a model: apparently competent young adults master their life under difficult circumstances. This seems to give orientation and to offer help. But in the depth structure it aggravates the mechanism, since what does not go down well and who is going to be thrown out is presented. This intensifies the pressure on the individual and confirms that the fear of being excluded is justified and it makes it even harder to find a way of dealing with the fear and the pressure to be largely integrated.

Then it would seem easier to adopt the interpretation patterns of the programme and also to use what seem to be the generally accepted forms of behaviour: to actively exclude others.


1 It is a part-study within the framework of the research project "The Significance of Daily Soaps for Children and Adolescents". The overall project centres on interviewing some 400 children and adolescents who regularly followed the programmes Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten, Marienhof, Verbotene Liebe, Unter Uns, Schloss Einstein and Big Brother. In a catalogue of questions thematic areas are examined as figures and contents of the programmes, the social integration of the reception situation into the family and everyday life, subsequent communication, fantasies and dreams connected with the broadcast. The formulation of the questions is deliberately left open and is meant to offer the children and adolescents scope to articulate their individual preferences and perspectives. The first findings of the study were published in the review TelevIZIon 2000/2, and they appeared in book form in the middle of 2001 in German.


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