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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 July, 2003, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Is Big Brother good for citizenship?
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online

Many think Big Brother is the very definition of low-brow entertainment. But does voting Jon in and Nush out get young people accustomed to having their say?

Nush at Number 10
This is an age when those eligible to vote - under-18s, ask the bill payer first - are getting used to having their say on the course of events.

Is it Cameron, Ray, Scott or Steph who is most deserving of Big Brother's 70,000 stake?
Is cricketer Phil more of a jungle survivor than designer Linda or ex-footballer John?
And which popstrel stands the best chance of topping the charts with a cover of a song you didn't much like the first time around?

Such decisions are made democratically, with the outcome decided by popular consent. In each series of these interactive TV shows, millions of votes are cast by phone, text, online or interactive TV. The final of Big Brother 4 this Friday is again set to keep its vote counters flat out.

It is an enviable situation for those wrestling with electoral reforms to re-engage with the UK's young voters.

Instant gratification

Just as Harry Potter is good in that the books instil a love of reading, could Big Brother woo young people - the group least likely to vote in local body and general elections - out of political apathy?

The Big Brother process isn't very democratic in that you can vote many times
Stephen Coleman
As the latest series got underway, the government toughed out calls to hold a referendum on the controversial EU constitution. The BBC's political correspondent Shaun Ley said Britons would want to have their say, accustomed as they are to voting in interactive TV shows.

Oxford University's Stephen Coleman, who wrote a report on how Big Brother could help revive Parliament, says TV voting can give people a feeling of what it's like to be in a democracy. "But the Big Brother process isn't very democratic in that you can vote many times and it costs to vote."

Another difference is that BB voters - or watchers of Fame Academy or I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! - get results fast. Within minutes of the lines closing, the evictee is packing their bags. With elections and referendums, it can take years for the chosen policy to take effect.

If viewers had such little influence on Big Brother, it would surely bomb. The interest is not only in watching in delicious anticipation to see if sulky Scott and bendy Nush will repeat their drunken snog, but in deciding that one has had quite enough of this mouthy sci-fi fan or that preening brunette - and in voting 'em out.

Nick Bateman is confronted about nomination rigging in Big Brother 1
One eviction we had no say in
For it is the sense of participation, of being counted - rather than the sense of duty - that engages the voter's interest.

Professor Coleman says those most likely to cast Big Brother votes are least likely to take part in elections. Thus MPs have much to learn from interactive TV shows - the Big Brother fans he spoke to suggested "diary rooms" and regular electronic referendums.

"Big Brother viewers tend to say they are good at judging people; political junkies are the opposite - they are good at analysis, but their emotional intelligence is low. The political class has fallen into the trap of understanding itself but not those outside it."

Press the red button...

What such programmes have done is boost the profile of alternative voting methods.

Vote counting in May elections
No longer is there one way to vote
While May's local elections certainly didn't break any polling records, postal and electronic ballots made it easier than ever to vote. Turnout was up, a reverse of its seemingly terminal decline.

Chris Quigley, whose company Rubberductions helped encourage people to e-vote in May, says the election employed the same voting methods as Big Brother evictions.

"We held mock elections in schools to get young people's perspective on it. They grasped the technology at once. In some schools, turnout was 87%."

But he is not convinced Big Brother is good for politics. "Yes it gets people to understand the value of having their say. But TV voting may have a negative effect in that people will expect instant results."

If turnout continues to plummet, there is the Australian way. The Aussies - and the Belgians, Brazilians, Austrians and some 50 other nations - have made voting compulsory.


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