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Saturday, 23 December, 2000, 23:32 GMT
The year of reality TV
By the BBC's William Gallagher

The year 2000 saw new people and programmes sparking into life on TV, but it was mostly a year of endings.

Giant shows moved or finished to great fanfare, while tastes in programmes slowly shifted and some of 1999's best successes began to flounder.

It was as if TV was determined to show it had moved on from the 90s and old ways of making programmes were no longer good enough.

Castaway
Castaway began the reality TV genre
Suddenly the docusoap, once adored by British viewers but overdone to the point of tedium, was no longer the staple of television.

And Big Brother was.

Not just Big Brother. The true start to this genre was the BBC's Castaway 2000 which in January saw 36 volunteers stranded on Taransay island for a year-long experiment.

It was meant to be about how people coped entirely removed from civilisation, but in hours it was a failure as the volunteers had to be put up in hotels while bad weather ransacked the island.

A year on, the producers now say that the experiment was as much about viewers' and the media's reaction to events on the island.

But despite some fascinating rows on Taransay, all that marks the castaways out is that they are the only people who have not heard of Big Brother.

That show dominated the first half of the year as pundits saw its successful European format of locking 10 people up in a camera-laden house as being the lowest of cheap, manipulative and even tacky ideas.

Once Big Brother had begun in July, though, opinions changed. At first reluctantly but then with a rush the show became the talking point of the nation and the nation's press.

Star deaths in 2000
Tony Doyle (Ballykissangel, Between the Lines)
Alan North (Police Squad!)
Charles Gray
Nancy Marchand (Lou Grant, The Sopranos)
Gary Olsen (2point4 children)
John Colicos (Star Trek)
Richard Mulligan (Soap)
Larry Linvile (M*A*S*H)
It was always going to be faster than Castaway 2000 but the UK makers sped up the format still further.

They planned weekly evictions from the Big Brother house instead of fortnightly as in the German version.

But what they did not plan, and could only have dreamed about, was an unexpected extra eviction in August as contestant 'Nasty' Nick Bateman was ordered to leave for breaking the show's rules.

He had riled the other contestants and made a mini-folk hero out of eventual winner Craig Phillips, who confronted him.

Phenomenon

By the end, Craig and Big Brother were a phenomenon and the final night scored huge ratings for Channel 4.

In America, Big Brother flopped terribly but perhaps not unexpectedly, as the format was weakened - one contestant was allowed out of the house to attend the Emmy awards ceremony.

Big Brother
Big Brother provided 2000's top TV image
By the end of the US version, the contestants were threatening to walk out and the networks were rumoured to be offering cash to any of them who would leave and be replaced by someone interesting.

But America fell completely for Survivor, a Castaway/Big Brother hybrid coming to the UK on ITV next year.

While Celador and ITV, the makers of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? floundered with its poor sequel The People Versus, BBC hit back with The Weakest Link.

With its funding coming from the licence fee, the BBC can never offer huge cash sums on quiz shows but this one defied previous logic by proving that money was not vital.

The contestants rarely win more than a tiny fraction of those on Millionaire but they work for every penny.

From its quiet start on BBC Two in the Autumn, host Anne Robinson eschewed the matey, arm-around-the-shoulders type of quiz show presenting.

Richard Wilson
Fans of One Foot in the Grave left flowers at the spot where the fictional Victor Meldrew died
Foolish answers were severely mocked, players were forced to work together as a team one minute but fight the next.

And as each one was forced out of the game, they got Robinson's "You are the Weakest Link, goodbye" in their ears.

Within weeks BBC Two controller Jane Root was commissioning another 90 daily daytime editions and BBC One was mounting special evening versions.

The trend to true tension in a quiz was undoubtedly fostered by the 1999 all-out success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? but in 2000 this excellent show was showing signs of trouble.


2000 was a time for new, short experiments like Marion & Geoff

In America, as well as the tacky spin-off with the winner effectively being offered a wife as a prize, the show changed formats to keep viewers interested.

The top cash prize is no longer $1m, but $1m plus $10,000 for every day that no one wins.

Similarly, in Britain, the show is trying to refresh its look with a special Christmas 2000 series featuring couples answering questions instead of individuals.

Britain's show got its first 1m winner in November 2000.

And what a controversial moment that was as it fell on the night of the fictional demise of Victor Meldrew in BBC's hit One Foot in the Grave.

But while it was surely coincidence, it came during a fraught time for the UK television's schedules, with the move of ITV's News at Ten and the BBC's subsequent decision to move its own news to 10pm.

Judith Keppel
Judith Keppel became the first UK winner of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
The ramifications for British television schedules were huge and for many as entertaining as the programmes themselves.

One of the few programmes to remain where it was planned to go was the last ever Inspector Morse, which saw the demise of the leading character after 33 films.

Coming the week before Victor Meldrew was killed off, this upset British viewers no end and scored ITV a high rating - though not remotely as high as Morse's peak in the 1980s.

Ratings for everything were down as the proliferation of TV channels continued, but in a way the lack of enormous viewing figures meant smaller shows and people got more notice.

Student favourite Ali G earned a small cult following when he left Channel 4's The 11 O'Clock Show for his own series. The attention he got for it propelled him into a pop video for Madonna.

Anne Robinson
Anne Robinson's quiz show is one of the strongest links in BBC schedules
Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer resurrected the 1960s show Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) to good comedic effect in March, while the comedy find of the year was Alistair McGowan whose impressions made such an impression in 1999 on BBC Radio 4's Dead Ringers.

One-off shows with bite included April's When Louis Met Jimmy, a profile of Jimmy Savile by Louis Theroux. People still argue which of them bested the other.

And April had Cor, Blimey!, a marvellously poignant and terrifically sad dramatisation of the affair between Carry On stars Barbara Windsor and Sid James.

The year 2000 did not mark the end of major drama, as it started with Gormenghast and 2001 sees the start of epic BBC Two drama In a Land of Plenty.

But it was a time for new, short experiments like the 10-minute Marion & Geoff comedy in the autumn rather than continuations of 90s favourites.

The soaps were the exception, and not only continued their grip on British viewers but celebrated milestones too. EastEnders reached its 15th anniversary while Coronation Street trounced that by reaching its 40th.

Both continue to dominate the ratings, though, showing that for all of the many changes in 2000, some things are set to remain the same for 2001.

That is, for television, if not for those Taransay castaways who are coming home.

See also:

01 Dec 00 | Entertainment
BBC says sorry in ratings row
16 Nov 00 | Entertainment
Morse's end draws 12 million
16 Nov 00 | Entertainment
Life with Big Brother
06 Sep 00 | Entertainment
Seventh Castaway quits island
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