Last year, Channel 5 boss Ben Frow gave his rather damning verdict on Big Brother.
“I would be much happier if the channel did not have Big Brother on it,” he told an audience of journalists and senior TV execs at the Edinburgh TV Festival.
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Since then, rumours about the future of the iconic reality TV show have continued to swirl. Going directly up against Love Island in the schedules in 2017 did Big Brother no favours, and it ended up being trounced every night in the ratings.
With the contract up for renewal in 2018, last summer sources told RadioTimes.com that production company Endemol had assigned a dedicated team and was employing its “smartest brains” on revamping the original social experiment.
Cue Paul Osborne. The producer has a long, long history with Big Brother, having worked on the original series in 2000. This year he’s returning to the show after 11 years away, under the newly-created title of Creative Director.
Although it hasn’t been overtly said, it seems as though this upcoming celebrity and civilian series of Big Brother is the final roll of the dice, with the show’s future depending on what happens in these coming months. So, what is Osborne’s plan for the show?
“I went back and watched stuff that I had worked on,” he tells RadioTimes.com ahead of his return. “But I also watched stuff that I hadn’t worked on in the more recent years, and was just dipping in and out of those different series, and I watched some international versions.”
Although he hates the term ‘back to basics’, Osborne is aiming to bring some elements of Big Brother past back to the show this year.
“For example, in Celebrity Big Brother in January, all the fans went nuts because we brought back the chalkboard for shopping,” he says (and it subsequently led to Rachel Johnson having a huge row over Parmesan). “It sounds sort of faintly ridiculous to be talking about that, but fans do love that tiny stuff – for good reason.
“We’re always looking to change stuff up, and simple things like that can fall by the wayside, and then actually you can sort of bring them back and go, ‘Remember how that was, back in the day?’ So there are always little elements like that that can be looked at as ways to not only recapture things, but to refresh the show.”
One aspect of Big Brother that diehard fans would love to make a return is the live feed. “When I came over [from America] I had a long list of things that I wanted to talk about,” says Osborne. “And that was definitely on that list. I’m well aware of how much the fans love that.”
So will it be making a comeback? “I wish it was as easy as just switching it back on,” he replies. “Unfortunately it isn’t, for a number of reasons – technical and compliance and all that sort of stuff. But it’s something that I have discussed. As it stands, we won’t be going back to a 24-hour live feed. But who knows what’s going to happen in the future?”
Osborne, who has also worked on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, Celebrity Wife Swap and Secret Millionaire, stresses that as well as looking to the past, he is “always looking for ways to innovate as well. So I guess this year, particularly I think with civilians, we are looking at ways of innovating the format itself. I can’t give away any more than that.”
The show, says Paul, is in his DNA. “I’m such a big fan that I’m always talking about it,” he smiles. He made his BB debut helping set the tasks for the first ever series of the then-Channel 4 show. “We were doing things like getting them to make clay pots and going around an assault course with tyres,” says Osborne, who has worked on the show for nearly a decade in total prior to his return this year.
Very quickly, the reality series – the likes of which TV had never seen before – exploded. When nominations fixer ‘Nasty’ Nick Bateman was ejected from the house after weeks of controversy – culminating in a big confrontation around the table spearheaded by fellow housemate Craig Phillips – it was massive.
“There was a suspicion that Nick actually had a phone in there, rather than notes,” says Osborne. “Back in those days, 18 years ago, technology was obviously very different. We were trying to determine if there were any mobile phone airwaves coming from the house. We were going into the camera run, and watching him from the mirrors, to see what he was doing in his suitcase. But he was very clever, and kept that suitcase out of view as much as he possibly could.
“I’d never had so many friends texting me wanting to know what was actually going on,” Osborne laughs.
The genre of reality TV has changed almost beyond recognition since then. “Obviously things are a bit more larger-scale and a bit more elaborate these days,” he says. “As we’ve gone through, the audience has an appetite for little twists and turns, all the way back to when Big Brother went ‘evil’ for series five and the golden tickets for Big Brother seven. There’s always a desire to reinvent the show every year. And that’s what is foremost in our minds when we’re putting together a mix of people – it’s time to create something that feels new and fresh.”
For this series of Celebrity Big Brother the theme is ‘eye of the storm’, with all of the housemates having previously been caught up in a controversy of some description. Although – of course – he won’t be giving any names away, Osborne does insist they have “a great cast” for this series.
“I think sometimes Celebrity Big Brother does a job over and above just being a celebrity reality show,” he says. “I think if you go all the way back to when Chantelle went in as the only non-celebrity, and had to pretend to be one. At the time, there was a lot of broadsheet coverage on that particular storyline.
“It was an interesting comment at the time about what makes someone famous? What makes someone a celebrity? I think that sometimes there are ways that we can cast the show in a way that gives us some interesting insight into fame in the current climate.
“And I think these days when your entire career can fall down off one 280-character tweet, or you can go from nothing to being the most famous person that day because of social media – I think that that can often be really interesting, to slightly tweak the definition of ‘celebrity’ for this day and age.
“We’re always looking for ways to freshen up how the cast is put together. That was definitely one of the things we wanted to achieve this year, and fingers crossed we have.”
Celebrity Big Brother returns Thursday 16th August at 9pm on Channel 5