Jane Wakefield: Big Brother is watching you

And we are watching Big Brother - but are we watching it on the TV or the Net?

So, unless you have been on the moon for the past 72 hours, you will know that great Machiavellian hero Nick Bateman is out of the Big Brother house. And while I know that half of the UK population disagrees with me and sees him instead as a slimy two-faced bastard, that is really beside the point. What everyone would agree with is that he has definitely done no harm to Channel 4's viewing figures and made the Big Brother Web site the most popular site on the Net.

Here at ZDNet News we watched the drama unfold live on the Web Thursday afternoon (purely in the interests of investigatory news journalism you understand) and so it was quite bizarre to watch it again on TV that evening.

While the sound of Nick sobbing and packing his chinos was a distant memory to those with those of us with our finger on the Net pulse, to the old-fashioned TV viewer all the excitement was yet to come. To me the programme already seemed out of date and somewhat stale, shattering the myth that we were watching real-time action on those 1984 Big Brother style cameras. Although in its favour the TV cameras did zoom in on Nick's pleading face as he begged for one last chance with his housemates which you didn't get from the Web cast.

The relationship between the TV and the Internet has long kept analysts scribbling graphs and taken up debating time at industry conferences. Will we be watching TV via the Net or the Net via our TV? In Big Brother, the the two came head to head for the first time as Nick -- shock horror -- nabbed a pencil during a house task, outraging his fellow contestants. For Nick's manipulative interpretation of the gameshow meant that -- in all his Iagoesque glory -- he was also stealing eyeballs and putting arses in front of the TV.

But while the execs at Channel 4 are happy to play ball with the Internet to promote TV programmes and give them that all-important and trendy Web presence it is not so happy when the Web starts to steal valuable viewers. (And when you consider that Channel 4 still wheels Richard Whiteley out at 4.30 every day I guess they DO need the figures.)

So when the action hotted up on Big Brother and Craig finally cottoned on to the fact that Nick might not be playing entirely by the rules, TV pulled rank and shut the Web site down. The official line was that they were worried that Craig and Nick might come to blows but in reality that seems like a limp excuse.

One of the joys of the Internet (and one of the biggest concerns for those trying to move the Net onto the TV) is that it doesn't obey the rules of TV. In fact anyone who has ever tuned in to one of those bizarre Webcams that were popular last year, where young girls agreed to let the Internet population into their bedrooms could testify that are very few rules that the Internet hasn't broken.

The real reason the plug was pulled on the site, was because Channel 4 values arses higher than it values eyeballs. Which, considering it is a TV company, is, I guess, fair enough.

They are just wrong. For a gameshow like Big Brother, that plays up the technology of surveillance, the Internet is the perfect companion giving the programme an edginess that the TV just can't realise. For one thing the Net is just more timely than the TV. How many people logged on to the streaming video of the latest Star Wars prequel before they made the trip to the cinema? And how many witnessed the "Robbie bares all" video on the Web before they caught the cut version on TV?

Not that attempts to mimic TV on the Net always come off -- as appalling virtual newsreader Ananova proves. And anyone that has witnessed broadband operators proudly showing off their ADSL video offerings would be forgiven for asking "What's the point?" While video clips on the Net look OK when they are the size of a postage stamp, blow them up to anything vaguely watchable and they look really silly. Jerky, broken -- reminding me of the old newsreel clips from the 1920s when everyone walked around really fast -- TV on the Net does nothing to promote the broadband world.

It would seem that despite the rapid uptake of Internet access, the Internet is still doomed to play second fiddle to TV. TV may be old technology but we like it and at the end of a hard day we are far more likely to settle down in front of the box than log on to the Net.

Kingston is one of the first UK operators to roll out broadband Internet-enabled TV and while the service is sophisticated and holds the promise of exciting things like video-on-demand, the Web sites still look pretty awful. The truth is that Web designers have a PC mindset and it is going to take a huge shift in attitude to start them designing sites that look good on the telly.

But it will happen and if any lesson is learned from the Big Brother experience it should be to value the Net for itself rather than as an extension of the TV. For when we can get genuine "Telly Net" the medium will come into its own, making us wonder how we ever managed to watch a programme that wasn't interactive.

As a self-confessed couch potato, I look forward to the day.

Oh and for the record, I'd just like to say that Nick was by no means the most pernicious character in the Big Brother house. It is a programme that prides itself on its links with technology and for me it is the technology that is the really bad housemate. One of the scariest things that has emerged over the weeks the residents have been cooped up in the high-tech house is the fact that everyone has come to take as second nature the all-pervasive eye of the camera. They are bowing down to Big Brother in a way that would have George Orwell turning in his grave. At one point Mel -- the girl who lives to flirt -- advised Nick to go ask Big Brother what he should do about leaving.

Call me old-fashioned but I always thought Big Brother was supposed to be the enemy and that rules were there to be broken. So while Big Brother would have us believe that Nick was the one to hate, remember next time you click on the Website that the real enemy is always unseen.

Big Brother mania is sweeping the country and the craze is leaving Tony Westbrook somewhat suprised as to why we are all so fascinated with this rather voyeuristic and slightly tacky form of entertainment. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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