>> 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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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& Ruprecht 1999
- Mikos, Lothar; Feise, Patricia; Herzog, Katja; Prommer,
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Sozialisation und Ergebnisse einer Jungenbefragung. Dortmund: