Public Release: 

Big Brother spurs viewers to separate truth from fiction

Issues of ethics and privacy

Economic & Social Research Council

Viewers are increasingly aware of how people act up in 'reality' TV shows such as Big Brother and regard a wide range of popular factual programmes to be entertaining rather than informative, according to new ESRC-funded research.

Cynicism about the 'reality' of some TV shows has led viewers to look for 'moments of truth', usually when a crisis is shown and 'real' people appear true to themselves, says Dr Annette Hill of the University of Westminster. She suggests that programme makers need to regain audience trust in the 'actuality' of factual entertainment.

Her research covered the whole range of popular, factual entertainment, including leisure programmes, docu-soaps and documentary gameshows such as Big Brother and Popstars. It found that more than 70 per cent of children and adults aged between four and 65 watch such programmes on a regular or occasional basis.

The widespread appeal of docu-soaps and gameshows sparks discussion about factual TV in the home and at work. Talk centres on how the participants are performing and their development as characters. And people are more likely to discuss issues such as ethics or privacy when shows such as Big Brother or Popstars are running.

Based on a survey, focus groups and in-depth interviews, the research, carried out in 2000-2001, shows that viewers like being able to see things caught on camera and judging events as though happening right before them. On the other hand, the more people perform in front of the cameras the less 'real' a programme is, leaving viewers to look for the mask to drop, perhaps during scenes of emotional conflict.

Dr Hill found that viewers applied their own sliding scale between fact and fiction when judging programmes in general. News and current affairs were at one extreme on the scale, and at the other end were the documentary game shows which put people in emotionally difficult situations.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Hill said: "News programmes, such as those allowing us to witness significant events as they unfold, inevitably shape viewers' attitudes to reality TV. What we have to ask is whether in the future reality TV such as Big Brother will shape viewers' attitudes and responses to the news."

A survey of more than 8,000 adults and 900 children found that when asked which they enjoyed most, 67 per cent opted for programmes about watching people in everyday places (for example, Airport) and 64 per cent liked shows often based on true-life experiences about the emergency services, driving, first aid or pets. Among the same group, 28 per cent named programmes which put people in manufactured situations on islands or in a house, such as Big Brother.

Regular viewers of factual entertainment were more likely to be women with children, whilst young adults had a greater liking for documentary game shows.

Most viewers said they found the content easy to relate to, being centred on homes and gardens, law and order, public places and healthcare. They enjoyed seeing behind the scenes, particularly in public places such as airports, and the programmes were also popular because they were usually scheduled at peak times in the evening.

Increasing convergence of TV and the Internet failed to attract the general TV audience in the period of the research, 2000 - 2001. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of those who did reveal an interest in accessing the Internet, mobile phones or digital interactive TV were young adults.


For further information contact: Dr Annette Hill 020 7911 5000 ext 4157. Email at the Centre For Communication and Information Studies, University of Westminster, Harrow, Middlesex, HA1 3TP

Or Lesley Lilley, ESRC External Relations, telephone 01793 413119 or email

NOTES FOR EDITORS 1. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £53 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences, thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is:

2. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at

3. The Centre for Communication and Information Studies (CCIS) at the University of Westminster, is a specialist centre for research into the mass media, telecommunications and other cultural industries. It has a top 'five' research rating awarded by the Higher Education Funding Council. In addition, its research staff have undertaken research for a number of sponsors including the Commission of the European Communities, Inmarsat, the Independent Television Network Centre and the Consumers Association. The website can be found at

4. Funding for the national survey of audience preferences for, and attitudes to, factual entertainment in the UK came from the Independent Television Commission (ITC). A self-completion questionnaire was distributed by BARB to a representative sample of 8,216 adults (16-65+) and 937 children (4-15) during August 2000. Subsequent audience research through semi-structured focus groups was part-funded by Channel 4.

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