Channel 4 is on a roller coaster ride. Every hour this week a new scenario shifts the media agenda and the current interest in Big Brother is at an all time high. The media and the public has been fixated – and transfixed – by the bullying and supposed racism in the house. And whether it is going to derail Jade Goody Inc. Is this all just publicity fall out or manna from heaven? We will soon discover if all publicity is bad publicity?
Front page news, radio phone ins, bloggers and the Houses of Parliament are all debating whether Shilpa Shetty is a victim of racial bullying. Unfortunately for those who live in the media village, we have to consider the demographic that we don’t connect to. From my own recent experience, with the surname I’m proud to own, it’s not uncommon for me to be thrown by the odd unsettling remark. We hope and pray that the society we live in is not represented by the coven in the Big Brother house – a wannabe starlet making a career from being a WAG, a nice girl next door who got a break in a conceptual band, whose career has now gone to minus zero, and a loud mouthed former reality contestant, washed up from the estuary of celebrity.
At the beginning Channel 4 played a masterful PR hand by giving a limited response to the furore. The bosses at Channel 4 and the heads of the production company, Endemol, didn’t put their heads over the parapet. This non-engagement resulted in even more debate and column inches. They were clearly in a position where they can see the flames being fanned, but were planning to choose their moment when they either add petrol to the fire, or extinguish it. The real loser in all this could have been The Carphone Warehouse, but then they pulled their sponsorship of the show and got more column inches than a full series of advertising would have attracted.
With the touch of a spinmeister Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan at the Oxford conference suggested in a, monotone delivery, that the programme is facilitating the debate on racism and bullying. Duncan suggested that the issues drawn out by BB enable a contemporary dialogue on a topic in society that rarely has such a public platform. Clever to tilt the rudder so deftly, clearly this statement was driven by the loss of Carphone Warehouse.
The ploy to put Shilpa into the house was a master stroke as it’s engaging not only a British / Asian audience and the fans of Bollywood, but it gave the show a lift back to the levels it reached last year when George Galloway was in da house. I’m sure the mischievous souls at Channel 4 who manipulate the programme had seriously thought about putting a Muslim in the house. The public vote to see Jade or Shilpa evicted is now being spun as a referendum on racist attitudes in this country.
We must never forget the PR backlash that has resulted in the likes of the BNP finding a niche power in sensitive urban constituencies. The media establishment which includes Endemol and Channel 4 would do well to recognise that they are already playing with petrol next to a naked flame. The diatribe that this has ignited, could explode. Let us remember that 24 hours in the time compressed media universe is a lifetime. Flashpoints based around race can sometimes become an uncontrollable force of nature.
However, none of the central players is actually interested in stopping this whirlwind. If the voters wanted to take some direct action, they could not vote at all or simply turn their televisions off. That would really shake the fabric of Endemol and Channel 4.