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Thu, 25 May 2023 Opinion

Revisiting Maiden Edition of Big Brother Africa 20 Years On

Revisiting Maiden Edition of Big Brother Africa 20 Years On
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Today, 25th May, which is also “Africa Day” (which is observed annually to commemorate the founding of the Organisation of African Unity - OAU), marks exactly 20 years the first season of Big Brother Africa (BBA) was launched in Johannesburg, South Africa. The show was produced by Endemol for Electronic Media Network or “Em-Net” (stylised as “M-Net”).

It started on 25th May in 2003 and ended on September 7 of that year, lasting 106 days. The housemates were Cherise (Zambia), Mwisho (Tanzania), Tapuwa (Zimbabwe), Warona (Botswana), Gaetano (Uganda) and Stefan (Namibia). The rest were Bayo (Nigeria), Abby (South Africa), Sammi (Ghana), Alex (Kenya), Zein (Malawi) and Bruna (Angola).

BBA1 was the first in the world to have housemates of different nationalities from one continent. These 12 English-speaking young Africans were confined to a palatial home in Johannesburg. The two-bedroom self-contained house had a garden, storeroom, diary room, living room, bathroom, kitchen, toilet and dining area, with 27 video cameras and 62 microphones capturing and picking every move, action and sound of the housemates. It was broadcast live, 24 hours-a-day on M-Net’s defunct channel 37 on DStv – Africa’s premier satellite TV provider.

Between May and September of 2003, the housemates brought their emotions, opinions, cultures and personalities into focus as they lived, fought, laughed, argued, learned and loved under one roof. On the last day, Cherise Makubale from Zambia was pronounced the winner of Big Brother Africa 1, after receiving 6 votes (out of the 13 votes) from Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia to win. She walked away with the coveted $100,000 cash prize, which was handed over to her in a silver briefcase on the stage.

The inaugural Big Brother Africa was a very fascinating and outrageous “social experiment” and “TV laboratory” that mixed voyeurism with entertainment, captivating the diverse audiences – an estimated 32 million TV viewers across Africa.

The decision to stage the pan-African version of Big Brother was a business and marketing strategy. In their quest to broaden the Big Brother show audience and also to encourage people to buy their own TV sets (which was a ”luxury” back in those days) and eventually subscribe to DStv, MultiChoice (a subsidiary of M-Net and operators of DStv) allowed free-to-air local TV stations across Africa to air a packaged 30-minute daily highlights, excluding the “shower hours”. Ghana’s Metro TV (then owned by Talal Fatal) was the local Ghanaian TV station that partnered with M-Net to screen it to their terrestrial TV viewers hereby increasing the audience for the BBA1 show substantially in Ghana.

What intrigued and captured the public’s imagination about BBA1 (and the Big Brother format in general) was the allure of watching 'real' people in action as opposed to scripted TV dramas and movies. It was a novelty to many people in Africa, and as a result it became the talk of town, especially the “shower hours” where some of the housemates were seen on TV (only via the live feed on DStv) bathing completely naked. These live TV images of the housemates showering together stark naked, like “Adam and Eve”, titillated the obsessive live DStv feed viewers who feasted their eyes like a spider in the top corner of a bathroom.

BBA1’s “shower hours” stoked up considerable controversy across Africa, with a section of the public describing it as an affront to “public decency” and the “vilest spectacle” ever on TV in Africa. As a highly impressionable teenager at the time, this alien and avant-garde reality TV concept really piqued my curiosity and interest, and also had a profound effect on my young mind.

How Big Brother was imported to Africa

The Big Brother show was created by Dutch media mogul, John de Mol Jnr. in the late 90s in the Netherlands (Holland). Between 1997 and 1999, John developed this reality TV format with a team from his TV production company, “John de Mol Produkties” – an independent company part of Endemol.

The term “Big Brother” came from George Orwell's novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (also published as “1984”), with its theme of continuous oppressive surveillance. And thus, in the Big Brother TV show house the housemates are monitored 24hr/7 with menacingly rotating super high-tech cameras fixed in every nook and cranny of the house. There is absolutely no place to hide in the Big Brother house!

The world’s first ever version of Big Brother was aired in the Netherlands on Veronica TV in 1999. This Dutch TV project became a huge hit and quickly spread across Europe. Big Brother’s franchise was then sold and syndicated internationally across the world, making it a worldwide hit show on television.

The Big Brother franchise was “imported” to Africa, through South Africa, in the year 2000 by Carl Fischer – a white South African who worked with Endemol South Africa and M-Net in the late 90s and early 2000s respectively. Carl is credited for revolutionising the TV scene in Africa (especially in South Africa) by introducing the continent’s first reality TV series, Big Brother, leading to his popular nickname “Mr. Big Brother”.

During his tenure at M-Net as Director of Local Programming, Carl pushed to increase the TV network's investment in locally produced TV programmes, and M-Net's investment in local programming saw a boom under him.

Hitherto, scads of the TV shows that aired on TV channels in South Africa were imported from outside the African continent, notably the Netherlands, ostensibly owing to the strong historic ties and long-standing special relationship between the Dutch of the Netherlands and Afrikaners (white South Africans) who own most of the TV networks (like M-Net) in South Africa.

The Big Brother show, being a totally new TV show format in Africa, was initially ‘piloted’ as "Big Brother South Africa", with housemates from only South Africa – black, mixed race and white South Africans. The first season of the South African version aired in 2001 and the second in 2002.

Prior to the season 2 of Big Brother South Africa in June 2002, M-Net organised a celebrity version called “Celebrity Big Brother” which aired for only 8 days. Featuring South African celebrities as housemates, all the money raised from voting was given to charity. The two seasons, and also the celebrity edition, were all hosted by Mark Pilgrim, who recently passed on in South Africa.

The enthusiastic reception and astonishing ratings for Big Brother South Africa (which took a long hiatus after season 2, and was revived/rebranded in 2014 as "Big Brother Mzansi") and the “Celebrity Big Brother” inspired M-Net and Endemol greatly to stage the continental edition – Big Brother Africa.

Launch of Big Brother Africa in 2003
The maiden edition of Big Brother Africa was launched and celebrated with far too much pomp and pageantry that any individual who claim not to have seen and/or heard about it was probably “deaf” and “blind” around that time.

The late Mark Pilgrim was once again given the baton to host the pan-African version too. There were also 12 guest presenters in each of the 12 participating countries whose responsibility was to interact with the kith and kin of the housemates, coupled with updating viewers on Big Brother news and highlights from their respective country.

In Ghana, that mantle fell on Christopher Nii Keith Attoh, simply called “Chris Attoh”, who was then a young freelance TV presenter and undergraduate student at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science Technology (KNUST).

Big Brother Africa was apparently designed to feature housemates from only Anglophone African countries. For this reason, most of the viewers were quite surprised to see a participant from Angola – a Portuguese-speaking nation.

But the organisers didn’t see this as a big deal, perhaps due to the fact that Angola had a sizable English-speaking population despite the country being a “lusophone” (Portuguese-speaking) nation. After all, the show targets primarily the elite class who predominantly formed this “sizable” English-speaking population in Angola.

Not surprisingly, the first housemate to be evicted from the BBA1 house was the Angolan representative, Bruna. In the wake of her eviction, word got around that the viewers in Angola misconstrued the communiqué (delivered in English of course!) issued in relation to the voting system.

From its very outset, till its fourth season (Big Brother Africa 4: The Revolution) in 2009, the public voted for the housemates they wanted to "evict" and not to "keep" in the house. But alas, the people of Angola, likewise other ‘ignoramuses’ in other part of Africa, voted massively for Bruna, thinking they were rather keeping her in the house.

It was a popular view during BBA1 that the most “beautiful” and “sexiest” housemate was this Angolan musician cum model called Bruna Tatiana Estevão (search her up on Google to confirm. LOL.). Accordingly, it was excruciatingly painful for some viewers to see her walk out of the house, barely 28 days.

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Another interesting highlight of BBA1 was when Gaetano surprisingly swapped places with Big Brother UK (BBUK) housemate, Cameron Stout (from Scotland) who in the end won that season of BBUK. Gaetano’s UK trip was a prize for the best cocktail contest which was actually won by Bruna. But owing to her eviction (which was just some few days to the UK trip), it was passed on to Gaetano who came second in the contest. The Big Brother housemate swap was a “twist” designed to liven up the season 4 of the UK version which was being screened at that time in the UK.

Gaetano upset British housemate Tânia do Nascimento when he called her "a piggy" (because of the amount of food she eats), causing her to walk off in tears amid threatening to leave the Big Brother UK house. The two buried the hatchet before Gaetano left the BBUK house and returned to the BBA1 house in Johannesburg. The next day, Tânia was ‘shockingly’ evicted from the BBUK house, receiving a high public vote to evict.

For the entire 4-month period that Big Brother Africa 1 was on TV, it drew a huge following across sub-Saharan Africa (Africa, excluding “North Africa”). The explosive popularity of the show even ‘triggered’ the then President of Botswana, Festus Mogae, to go on the radio to endorse and canvass for the country’s representative, Warona.

BBA1 became a way of life on the continent. People would frantically dash out of their offices to their various homes just to catch the latest antics on TV. Individuals with no television often raced to pubs and bars in droves to watch on communal TV sets. At such venues, there were even reserved seating for some ardent audiences. The teeming crowd grew larger when “evictions”, held on Sunday evenings, were about to take place.

Big Brother Africa Controversies
BBA1 was praised highly in countries like South Africa, Botswana and Uganda for bridging cultural gaps, and also reviving the spirit of pan-Africanism and camaraderie among Africans.

However, the reverse was the case in some other African countries. In Zambia, BBA1 came under sharp criticism from church groups, political and religious leaders who said it was too explicit, encouraged immorality and seemed to condone casual sex in the midst of Africa's HIV/AIDS pandemic.

They further argued that, the show portrayed scenes of nude housemates taking showers on live TV, which was not in consonant with African cultures and values. And hence, they started a petition to get the show off the state-owned TV station Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC).

Namibia’s then president, Sam Nujoma also tried to ban it by ordering the country’s national TV station Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) to stop telecasting it. But the president’s fiat fell on deaf ears just as in Zambia. Some people were of the view that the President Sam Nujoma’s “dislike” for the show may have been born out of the fact that the Namibian housemate, Stefan Ludic, was not a black Namibian and so he should not have been Namibia's representative in the pan-African contest (there are white people in Namibia, just like in South Africa).

There were equally fierce agitations in Malawi to get this “immoral show” (as BBA1 was referred to) taken off air. Unlike in the aforementioned countries, the Malawian parliament voted to ban the daily highlight broadcast on the state broadcaster, TV Malawi (TVM). A fortnight later, a high court in Malawi repealed it, arguing that the Malawian Parliament acted outside its powers.

Carl Fisher, the “mastermind” behind the Big Brother format in Africa, was famously quoted as saying, “If (the show) didn't generate any controversy, the project would be a failure”.

BBA1 was the highest-rated show in the history of African television. It was later aired in America on the "Africa Channel" from November 2008 to March 2009, making it the first non-American edition of Big Brother shown in the United States of America (USA).

The success and popularity of Big Brother Africa 1 led to M-Net and MultiChoice investing in more African versions of reality TV franchises like “Survivor” and “Idols” viz. Idols South Africa, Idols West Africa, Nigerian Idol and Idols East Africa.

By: Eugene Selorm Owusu

Eugene Selorm Owusu
Eugene Selorm Owusu

Media Practitioner/WriterPage: EugeneSelormOwusu

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