TV pulls rank over Big Brother's Web operation

Was it a genuine mistake to pull Big Brother's live Web coverage, or just a ploy to protect TV audience figures?

As Channel 4 executives congratulate themselves Friday on another huge viewing coup courtesy of 'Nasty Nick', questions are being asked about the company's decision to pull the plug on the site's Webcams early Thursday morning -- just when the Nick drama was unfolding.

According to reports the online team decided to halt broadcasts from house Webcams Thursday morning because they were concerned about a violent confrontation between Craig and Nick.

But a source at Channel 4 says reports are misleading and the real reason the Webcams were turned off was to protect the TV programme's viewing figures. Channel 4 has struggled to attract anything like the figures of Chris Tarrant's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" which commands audiences of around 20 million viewers. Big Brother attracts around four million viewers.

Channel 4 insists the Web unit and the TV unit work in "unison" and rejects any suggestion of the TV unit pulling rank over its Internet sibling. The official press release blames the night production team for halting the Web coverage but does not mention which team made the decision.

Asked if it was the Web team or the TV team, the spokesman said "both". When challenged, she switched, saying "Well, it must have been the TV team then."

But ZDNet's source says the uncomfortable truth is that Channel 4's TV bosses closed down the Web coverage because they were worried that fewer people would watch the TV programme if events were seen over the Internet. The source has also revealed that Thursday afternoon's Web-cast Kangaroo court hearing, where housemates finally tackled Nick about his dastardly deeds, was threatened by those same TV executives.

Channel 4 will probably escape further embarrassment as the media focuses on what "Nasty Nick" does in the following few days, but at least one media analyst says it will be a long time before the Web, despite its immediacy, becomes a threat to TV.

"The whole point about a show like Big Brother is to bring in as many viewers as possible, but don't forget the TV side brings in much more revenue," says Paul Sullivan, media analyst at Merrill Lynch. "Commercially I can understand that kind of discussion going on between the Web teams and the TV teams, but online only stimulates the actual TV figures. Online is just a by-product."

Early indications suggest that Thursday's events attracted more hits on a single site in 24 hours than any other in the world. This has yet to be confirmed. ZDNet will bring you details as they emerge.

Go to Big Brother: The inside story.

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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