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Saturday, 23 March, 2002, 00:29 GMT
Greece's Big Brother row
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By Panos Polyzoidis
BBC Correspondent in Athens

Greece has been one of Big Brother's most privileged territories, as viewing ratings of the game's first run last year were phenomenal.

On New Year's Eve the show attracted more than 80% of audiences.

Throughout the three months that Big Brother was being shown, goings on in the enclosed surroundings of the one-time film studios that housed the 12 players dominated everyday conversation around Greece.

Besides making short-term celebrities of participants, the show also brought spectacular revenues to Antenna Television, which aired it, from extra advertising and telephone voting charges, as well as from traffic to the game's website.

TV Cameras
Greek critics say the show invades privacy
Big Brother's success led Antenna's main competitor, Mega Channel, to launch Bar, a game based on a similar concept.

Antenna then retaliated by running their second game six months ahead of schedule.

The head-to-head, prime-time clash between the two shows forced other channels to launch spin-off programmes that followed developments in the two games, in attempts to cash in on the ratings party.

Things turned sour when more and more voices started criticising the quality of the shows.

A heated public debate filled television screens, radio waves and newspaper columns.

Poor taste?

Critics charge that Big Brother-type programmes encourage senseless promiscuity, breach privacy and teach lack of loyalty, as participants developed a habit of accusing each other constantly to persuade viewers to vote their competitors out.

The other side argues the merits of choice. Everyone has the choice to switch to another channel or turn the box off altogether, they say.

No matter what degree of poor taste these shows exhibit, no-one should be telling people what to watch, or trying to enforce their own values and aesthetics across society, the argument goes.

Banned for a night

The public battle of opinions reached a peak when the Broadcasting Authority's chairman exercised his right to order the programmes temporarily off the air for breaching obscenity laws.

The majority of the press attacked the decision - notably some of these newspapers own large stakes in Mega Channel.

The two largest political parties avoided criticising the independent regulator, while some smaller ones applauded.

The recent sanctions against the Turkish channel showing Big Brother's local version brought more indignation to those opposing the chairman's decision, as Greek public opinion does not consider Turkey a model of respect for individual freedoms.

As things turned out, Bar and Big Brother 2 were banned for just one evening (Antenna transmitted the show on web cast over the internet for the night).

The Authority's board decided they should be aired at their regular time slots, requesting that they be shifted to a later time and bear a more restrictive viewing certificate. A final decision on these points is pending.

Shrinking numbers

The hype surrounding the two shows is bound to continue, as are heated public arguments.

Private Greek broadcasting was a late starter and developed in a pretty unregulated legal environment - the issuing of permanent licences has been outstanding ever since non-state channels went on air in 1989.

This regulatory environment led to competition spiralling out of control with quality going down as a result.

State-run television is, often justly, accused of having too close links with the government of the time, which diminishes its credibility.

And the small size of the market does not allow for viable specialised channels to appear and cover niches - especially after the advertising market collapsed in the mid 1990s.

Thus, no real alternative to mainstream commercial broadcasters is available, most Greeks are unhappy with the quality of television that is on offer.

Viewer numbers shrink season after season, particularly for news programmes.

Censorship fears

Some people point out that reality-show games are not the sole sin of Greek television and that the sensationalism and tabloid-style outlook of news programmes here are just as damaging.

The hypothetical fear that some authority could one day intervene in news and current affairs broadcasts is a strong argument used by those who oppose restrictive action against Big Brother and Bar.

As an editorial in the Athens daily Eleftherotypia put it: "A climate of censorship will remain. And it must be fought against."

See also:

22 Mar 02 | TV and Radio
Ban on Greek Big Brother overturned
05 Jul 01 | TV and Radio
Bother for Greek Big Brother
10 Dec 01 | Africa
SA Big Brother reflects divisions
12 Nov 01 | TV and Radio
Russian 'Big Brother' bares all
24 May 01 | TV and Radio
Reality TV around the globe
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