The Origin of the Big Brother Franchise

Published on: September 30, 2022 (Updated on: April 22, 2024)

Who doesn't enjoy a little reality TV once in a while? Although there are several of them around, some stand out from others.  With decades of presence in several countries, these top guns are the mothers of reality TV. One such example is the much-loved Big Brother franchise. Indubitably one of the most popular and successful reality TV shows in the world, the Big Brother franchise spans decades in over 62 countries and regions of the world.

Although most viewers are familiar with the concept of the show and have ready knowledge of the exact words of a housemate in a particular episode that aired ten years ago, many do not know about its origin. Are you aware that the idea behind Big Brother is derived from a book? Here's a brief look at the beginning of television's most addictive reality show.

A Dutch media tycoon called John de Mol Jr, is the mastermind behind the Big Brother franchise. He is also  credited as the creator of other major reality  TV shows, including "The Voice" and "Fear Factor." The show first aired on Veronica TV in the Netherlands in 1999, before gaining international recognition. The early seasons provided essential amenities to the housemates and nothing more. Common luxuries enjoyed in subsequent seasons were absent from the original ones. This format added a subtle survival theme that helped increase its potential for public controversy.

origin of Big Brother franchise

The term "Big Brother" comes from George Orwell's critically acclaimed novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984). Published in 1949, this dystopian social science fiction explores the dangers of a totalitarian society for its inhabitants. The show mirrors some of the themes in the novel.

“Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in the bed - no escape.”

The above sentence was taken from page 21 of the novel. Similar to the book, "Big Brother is always watching." There is no privacy for the contestants and with the help of 24/7 live cameras and audio, they are always under Big Brother’s supervision.

Although it has been modified and improved over the years to adapt to the changing times, the original concept remains the same. Contestants referred to as "housemates" are isolated from the outside world for a set period of time, usually a couple of months. They are housed in a purpose-built house overseen by an invisible formidable figure - 'Big Brother.' In a "Diary Room", the housemates convey their personal thoughts and opinions to Big Brother and reveal who they want to evict.

During their stay, all the activities and behaviours of the housemates are monitored and broadcast through live cameras and personal audio devices. And what exactly is the game? Co-existing with complete strangers who are constantly voting each other out until a winner emerges.   

Since its inception as a small reality television program, the Big Brother franchise has become an international hit in the reality game. Besides following the original theme, there is no international standard for the organizers of the show to follow, so there are different versions in different parts of the world. From 'Big Brother Naija' to Argentina’s 'La Casa de al Lado' ('The House Next Door') and India’s 'Bigg Boss', there is no limit to the imagination and creativity of organizers. But who benefits most from this unlimited creativity? -  the audience.

The show provides an avenue to escape their comparably boring lives for a while, to relax and enjoy the adventures of unfiltered Big Brother housemates. That is one of the reasons for its immense success: the ability to capture the endless attention of fans with vicarious entertainment that comes from the stark display of human interaction in an enclosed space.

The Big Brother franchise is no stranger to criticism and controversy. While the moral compass of society condemns the franchise for embracing and promoting immorality, some sections of society interpret it as a display of nothingness. Some even associate the show with the Illuminati, due to its distinctive logo and symbolism. But for those who just need to wind down at the end of a strenuous day or hardcore fans who monitor the housemates even while they sleep, Big Brother is pure and undiluted entertainment.