While Big Brother UK struggles to attract viewers, its African equivalent grows ever more popular. Now in its eighth season, it is the continent’s biggest reality show.
It is not just an evening pleasure, Big Brother Africa is broadcast on local radio stations across the continent and on one live TV channel 24/7.
If you walk into business premises in Zambia, for example, you are very likely to find employees glued to the television, sometimes on tiny screens under the counter.
At a local hotel in Lusaka, where I’m currently staying, the receptionist Alice is addicted to Big Brother Africa. If you try to ask her anything while she’s watching the show (it could be any time of day) she shouts, “wait”, as if talking to a naughty child pestering his or her parents. She has a very serious face too, which makes you follow her orders.
At any point, there will be a few of us waiting politely at reception, hoping the next commercial break will hurry up. When not busy watching the show, she is a lovely, helpful and chatty person but all she wants to talk about is the latest twist on Big Brother, her favourite contestants, and who is in love with whom.
A truly unforgettable viewing experience. Big Brother Africa
Alice is not alone. The other day, I went into a shop to top up my local phone and I was also told to wait or come back later. I waited outside and went back during the commercial break. I was served. It seems that if Big Brother Africa is on, everything else must be put on hold.
So, here is my question: If shopkeepers and hotel and restaurant staff are not as productive as they should be, doesn’t that mean companies are losing out? The popularity of the show is certainly causing bad customer service here in Lusaka. That will inadvertently affect the local economy. I leave that for the economists to study.
With most of them already evicted, this year’s season started with 28 contestants from 14 different countries. All are under 40 years old. The winner gets a $300,000 cash prize and will likely become a household name across the continent.
For Zambians, the obsession with the show began during the first edition in 2003. Cherise Makubale from Zambia won.
Now married to a British man and living in the UK, she’s regarded as a national icon back home in Zambia. They even named a local park after her. She was praised for respecting her culture, behaving well and having “high moral values”.
Since then, the show has evolved and it is now more explicit with romantic and sexual scenes on display. The producers pride themselves on giving “the audiences and loyal fans of the show, a truly unforgettable viewing experience”.
On its website, it says: “This Season, audiences can expect a show encompassing suspense, emotions, drama, fun, excitement and quite possibly, as we have seen in previous Seasons, a little romance.”
However, experts believe the show is changing society’s moral values for the worse, especially regarding young people who are attracted to western lifestyle. Because of what they see on the Big Brother Africa, youths are doing things that they didn’t in the past, like kissing in public and not feeling ashamed “misbehaving” in front of their parents.
When we start borrowing or doing things that are un-African for a lack of a better term, I think we are losing ourselves. Elizabeth Mweena-Chanda
“That’s totally un-African,” said Elizabeth Mweena-Chanda, mass communication lecturer at the University of Zambia. “We are losing out our culture as Africans. We are a distinct people with our own identity and we get our identity from our cultural values. So when we start borrowing or doing things that are un-African for a lack of a better term, I think we are losing ourselves.”
She blames local journalist who were supposed to act as a watchdog for failing to promote local cultural values. Instead, they seem to be going with the flow, creating more showbiz and lifestyle pages, showing pictures of “semi-naked” people on a weekly basis.
She’s calling on African governments to regulate the content of the show. “If you just open up your airwaves and say anything goes then it becomes a problem,” she told me.
Elizabeth is fighting a losing battle. In the past, religious leaders and traditionalists have accused the show’s producers of spoiling the African way of life and sexualising societies. But they have failed to influence anyone. The whole “proliferation” of western culture is now becoming acceptable. Young people are winning over their elders.
Perhaps the most notable positive contribution is that the show is educating Africans about each other by bringing people from different parts of the continent into their front rooms. While they share a lot in common, each contestant enters the house with the aim of representing his or her nation. Some do well. Others fail miserably.
As for me, I have now learnt to avoid Alice when she’s watching Big Brother Africa. The commercial breaks I used to hate when watching films or sport are now my favourite moments. I wish they had more commercial breaks.