PINOY BIG BROTHER: Reality TV, Panopticism,
Political Economy and the (Pseudo) Drama of Everyday Life
Ralph Semino Galán
Inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four, George’s Orwell’s futuristic novel about a totalitarian world where the surveillance of its citizens through close-circuit cameras has been institutionalized, the reality TV series titled Big Brother produced by endemol is a global sensation. The main premise of the program is to record the interactions of a given number of strangers residing inside the same house for a given number of days. Although it is similar to MTV’s The Real World in its deployment of multiple cameras, seamless editing and seemingly unscripted scenes, Big Brother has the added feature of contractual confinement, for the participants have acquiesced that they cannot leave the house, nor can they have contact with the outside world unless deemed by big brother. Moreover, since it is also a competition, contestants must nominate at the beginning of each week the person whom they think deserves to be kicked out of the house, a characteristic it shares with the extremely successful Survivor series. But unlike the latter, at the end of each week, TV viewers get to vote for the so-called “housemate” they want to save by calling or texting, thus bringing into the picture Big Business and the corporate world.
The popularity of its local franchise, ABS-CBN’s Pinoy Big Brother, is just as phenomenal as its foreign counterparts, catapulting its participants from relative obscurity to celebrity status and producing spin-off shows like PBB Celebrity Edition, PBB Teen Edition, PBB Uplate, etc. It is imperative, however, to scrutinize through a close semiotic reading this highly-watched audiovisual text, since Pinoy Big Brother capitalizes on the seductive power of panopticism to satisfy the voyeuristic and scopophilic impulse of Filipino mass audiences who thrive on showbiz tsismis. For to view uncritically this reality TV show is to collude with, rather than resist, the all-seeing eye as it aims its shifting but unflinching 24/7 gaze on the contestants whose privacy have been lost for good. This cultural phenomenon has far reaching social implications, since the loss of these people’s privacy, albeit with consent, through media technology in its monitoring mode, grooms the mind of the common Filipino to accept the impingement on his freedom by state surveillance systems in the name of national security against local and international terrorism.
Furthermore, although subtitled “Ang Teleserye ng Totoong Buhay,” thus signifying that “sa bahay ni kuya” authentic characters are involved in genuine situations, Pinoy Big Brother is far from being a mere TV documentary show, since the housemates are manipulated to explore and expose different aspects of themselves through the daily and weekly tasks. The constantly probing and oftentimes insinuating questions of kuya in the confession room also lead them into possible personality conflicts and/or love teams, hence generating more interest for Filipino mass audiences whose preference for TV fare, based on the proliferation of telenovelas, is certainly romantic drama. Lastly, the choice of contestants is determined by political economy, for they are apparently selected based on their potentials as product endorsers, showbiz personalities and ABS-CBN stars.
Pinoy Big Brother, therefore, contrary to its claim of being “the television series of real life,” is nothing but a semi-scripted soap opera for the common Filipino of the New Millennium, preparing him perhaps for a totalitarian but corporate capitalist future where private space does not exist, conflicts fabricated and love a simulacrum, so similar to Orwell’s fictional world of Newspeak, Thought Police and, of course, Big Brother.
Note: This is the abtract of the paper I will be delivering to the 8th ICOPHIL (International Conference on Philippines Studies) this coming July.