Two decades ago, on Sept. 16, 1999, a group of nine strangers moved into a purpose-built home in the Netherlands, consenting to cut off contact with the outside world and be part of the soon-to-be cultural phenomenon, Big Brother.
The show’s first season, which aired on the now Talpa TV-owned Dutch broadcaster Veronica TV, laid the groundwork for Endemol Shine Group’s globe trotting reality franchise that has since spawned 471 series commissioned in 60 markets.
Lisa Perrin (pictured below), CEO of creative networks at Endemol Shine Group, says the format had a “huge” impact on unscripted entertainment when it first launched.
“It genuinely did change television forever,” she tells Realscreen. “When you think of the other big reality shows – Love Island, Survivor, the things that came subsequently – nothing has really brought to the genre in quite the way, I think, Big Brother has.”
Despite some regional variations, the general premise has gone largely unchanged. Big Brother – its title inspired by the figure of the same name in George Orwell’s novel 1984, about a dystopian surveillance state – brings together contestants, referred to as “housemates” or “house guests,” to live in the isolated property in hopes of winning the ultimate popularity contest and a cash prize.
“Nobody had done 24/7 streaming, nobody had equipped a house with 24 cameras to be watched by the ever-present ‘Big Brother,’ nobody had done back-to-back shows,” Perrin says. “It was really, really, really innovative, genuinely. I still think it is.”
Endemol Shine introduced Big Brother globally following the original format’s success. Over the past 20 years, its iterations have included Bigg Boss in India — of which there are six versions in six regional languages – Big Brother Brasil, Big Brother Africa, Big Brother Canada (main photo), Grande Fratello in Italy and Pinoy Big Brother in the Philippines, to name just a few.
The British and American versions of Big Brother launched in 2000, the latter (pictured below) fronted by the franchise’s longest running host Julie Chen Moonves on CBS. Celebrity spin-offs, such as Big Brother VIP in the Netherlands and Celebrity Big Brother in the U.S., came soon after.
“It was one of the first formats to roll out so widely around the world. In every market it’s rolled out, it’s adapted itself,” Perrin says. “In terms of the U.S. and Canadian versions and Brazil’s, there’s less focus on organic reality.”
Behind the scenes, Endemol Shine has taken steps to bring production from 1999 to 2019. Advanced camera and sound collection equipment, as well as connected house technologies, have given producers the freedom to innovate.
The original house in the Netherlands was equipped with just 24 cameras, for example, whereas today’s Italian series is shot with more than 100. In Finland, the recent relaunch of the show was located in a shopping mall in Helsinki.
“It’s very adaptable. The way we actually make the show is very different now. The last two, three years we’ve done quite a lot of work with Microsoft to change the workflow. We realized that, actually, we were making the show the same way we did 20 years ago,” Perrin says.
The television landscape has also shifted drastically since 1999. Today, in Spain, Endemol Shine has a dual strategy to produce the program for linear and online or streaming on a broadcaster’s SVOD or AVOD platform in markets such as the U.S., Canada and Finland.
In 2016, Endemol Shine launched the first-ever digital season of the series, Big Brother: Over the Top, in the U.S. Fans can also stream footage online 24/7 from inside the house via live feeds.
Though, despite the evolution, Big Brother maintains the immersive qualities it helped pioneer. Weekly evictions are the “bedrock” of the series, according to Endemol Shine, which are voted for by viewers. Earlier this year, the media company saw 202 million votes cast in Brazil in a single eviction.
For Perrin, the series has broke ground in other ways, too, by casting a diverse group of contestants. The first LGBTQ+ winner, openly bisexual Bianca Hagenbeek, won the show in the Netherlands in 2000, for example. Earlier this year, the Canadian version had its first non-binary housemate, Kyra Shenker.
“Nothing quite reflects the social landscape, in terms of television, that Big Brother does in such an entertaining and popular way,” Perrin says.
The well being of the housemates, particularly as conversations around duty of care move to the forefront, is top of mind for Endemol Shine as the series continues to grow.
“The biggest challenge for us right now with the program is always the casting and the duty of care question around a lot of these programs at the moment, and how we consistently keep our duty of care at the top of the agenda and how we make sure our contestants are treated well and looked after outside of the house as well,” she says.
Looking ahead, Perrin plans to keep Big Brother firing on all cylinders. This year, the series has 22 productions across 18 markets forecast, with comebacks in the Philippines, India, Italy, the U.S. and Poland (pictured below). It’s also slated to return to Germany in 2020, with “more deals in the pipeline,” according to the production outfit. The latest season of Spain’s celebrity spin-off, Gran Hermano VIP, debuted Sept. 11 on Telecino, scoring a 40% share.
“I’m hoping that we continue to roll it out to another 10 [markets] next year,” Perrin says.
(Photos courtesy Endemol Shine Group)