Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Winners and Losers of Big Brother Croatia

Saša Jadrijević-Tomas (Sasa Jadrijevic-Tomas) in his Slobodna Dalmacija piece two months ago bashed entire concept of Big Brother and claimed that the only true winner of the show could be only Egle, because she "left that abomination first and would have the least psychological damages in the end".

Jadrijević-Tomas might be right about Egle, but he is wrong about her being the only winner.

The most obvious winner of the show is RTL Televizija. When the new TV station appeared on Croatian airwaves this Spring, it proved to be one of the biggest disappointments of the year. Their programme, which consisted of German cop shows, German soap operas, a decade old Hollywood blockbuster, 1980s and 1990s American sitcoms (many of them recently aired on other Croatian TV stations), hardly brought anyone's attention. Domestic programme – which consisted mostly of Croatian versions of German news and quiz shows wasn't popular either. RTL Televizija also made a mistake of relying mostly on young, new, energetic but not particularly experienced personnel which later resulted in series of embarrassing technical and programming glitches that continue to plague RTL Televizija to this day. Executives of Nova TV and state-run HRT had few reasons to worry about their new rival.

Until Big Brother, that is.

From September 18th 2004 onwards, thanks to Big Brother, RTL became a juggernaut that slowly but unstoppably began to sweep away its competition. It took only few weeks for Big Brother to become one of the most watched television broadcasts in the history of Croatia. After few weeks Big Brother even managed to beat any television programme other than 19:30 news on state-run HRT. Nova TV was first to yield ground, then HRT's hegemony began to collapse. Once mega-popular talk shows, Hollywood films and TV shows better than those on RTL Televizija and even the soccer games – all that was in vain. RTL Televizija managed to tailor their entire programme around Big Brother – news and talk shows, once ignored, were carefully watched only because of tiniest bit of new information around the show and its contestants. When Electronic Media Council introduced new and harsher censorship standards it was too late for HRT and Nova TV – ratings of Big Brother have slowly declined, but not enough to end new RTL Televizija's hegemony. It is estimated that the final show was watched by 1.8 million viewers – few events in recent Croatian history can match that kind of attention.

The other biggest winner of the show was, of course, T-Com. Croatia's only fixed phone operator was the show's main sponsor and Big Brother served them very well. They used every trick imaginable to exploit Croatian public's infatuation with the show and extract as much money as possible. There were phone lines for eviction voting, phone lines for sending text messages of support for contestants, phone lines for listening contestants' biographies, phone lines for listening the events in every part of the House, phone lines for appearing in the weekly live shows. Another big source of profit was, of course, Internet. T-Com used Big Brother for their very aggressive promotional campaign for broadband Internet. Other sponsors – media and non-media – also have reasons to consider themselves as the winners of the show.

Only time will tell whether any of the contestants – those who were supposed to be the winners – is a true winner. Saša Tkalčević (Sasa Tkalcevic) has won his 1 million HRK (minus taxes and debts he has to pay), but experiences of other prize winners show that fortunes gained overnight can also be lost overnight. However, if the well-being of his family was his prime and only motive for appearing in the show – and, judging by the vote, Croatian public thinks so – than he can consider himself a winner. If he gets seduced with the idea of becoming Croatian top celebrity, he is about to receive a nasty disappointment in a year or so. Experiences of Story Supernova stars – young people who became instant deities only to be reduced to pathetic nobodies in couple of months – indicates that the fame gained in such way is worthless unless a carefully and professionally maintained. If Saša wants to remain popular, he would, sooner or later, have to sacrifice parts of his lifestyle – the very thing that defined him and helped him win in the first place.

Some of the other contestants may become winners later on. At this stage, Alen Macinić (Alen Macinic) seems to be the closest to that aim. While in studio during the final live show he improvised a comedy routine. This shows that he has a talent that could serve him well with few acting lessons, more discipline and healthier lifestyle; on the other hand, some of the things that come with instant fame – entourages, sycophants, groupies, vulture-like media and the lifestyle of excess – can arouse personal demons that artificial reality of Big Brother House never could.

Antonija Blaće (Antonija Blace) has also put the last few weeks of her presence in Big Brother to good use. She handled her last nomination very well and properly dealt with the inevitable eviction by acting more naturally and more charmingly. Without scheming, Axis and artificial reality of Big Brother House that had enhanced the negative aspects of her personality (and some of her looks) Antonija began to win fans even among those who were celebrating each of her three nominations. In past weeks she displayed some acting talent that could serve her well if she ever thinks of appearing on television.

Antonija benefited from the phenomenon first spotted after Ozren's departure. The contestant dubbed "Ozren Prezren" ("Ozren the Despised") during his last days in the House became sorely missed only after few weeks. The very public that hated his annoying and arrogant ways began to lament the lack of "fun" he had been bringing to the House. However, unlike Antonija, Ozren is unlikely to benefit from his Big Brother experience. In the end it does matter whether Big Brother contestant leaves the game early on or in the end. For example, many believed that Krešo Jengić (Kreso Jengic) – the most popular of all housemates at the very beginning – would become Croatia's greatest celebrity and popular talk show host. But, so far, it didn't happen. The only thing to arise from his instant fame is a brief cameo in a video clip by Psihomodo Pop, one of Croatia's rock bands.

Valentina Tasić (Valentina Tasic), who remained almost until the end, believes that she could become TV talk show hostess. Although a joint performance with her and Krešo shows certain degree of stage skills, rumours about her new career as credible as her "romance" with RTL Televizija's show host Neno Pavinčić (Neno Pavincic) – the most theatrical element of the show ever. Filip Voloder is more serious contender thanks to his relative erudition and eloquence and even some serious media are speculating about some kind of talk show. Before that happens, Filip, just like any other housemate, will have to spend weeks and months appearing as celebrity guest in all kinds of RTL Televizija's news and talk shows.

It could also be argued that Marina Bajlo is one of the show's winners. If her motive was to be famous and somehow, at least for a while, escape her small town monotony, she succeeded in her aim. But her greatest achievement was the entry in the show's finals. She did it despite two nominations, media vultures that had tried to paint her in the worst ways possible, snobbish intellectuals who tried to portray her as the embodiment of the worst in Croatian youth and, finally, RTL Televizija staff that painted her in unenviable light during TV daily summaries. She did it by displaying anything a decent human being should have – intelligence, discipline and big heart. She was the one to wash dishes, clean tables and does all the boring things while other housemates were more busy with partying and scheming. She was the one to bravely conquer her fears and childhood traumas. She was one to forgive and to be nice even when it was seemingly counterproductive and unnecessary to do so. And, finally, she was the one give audience what they craved for – a funny, active, cheerful personality – only at the end, when it was most natural time to do it. In the end she was most down-to-earth and she realistically assessed her chances, seeing the finals as her biggest achievement. Whether the biggest achiever could survive outside House remains to be seen. I hope that the same discipline she showed in the House can serve her well when she faces the pressures of instant celebrity.

The show that has winners also has losers. It is, however, somewhat more difficult to determine who can be a loser.

Show's detractors would probably say that the biggest loser is Croatian public. In a sense, they might be right. Croatians were manipulated into considering a trivial reality show as something grander and more important than reality. Croatian youth was also given a wrong message about what is important in life, what virtues they should appreciate and what is the best way to earn for a living. Everyone who cherishes modern democracy has many reasons to be concerned about present-day Croatia – a country where Big Brother is more important than the presidential election. On the other hand, that very Croatian public can comfort itself with one night – Big Brother gave them opportunity to strike back at the establishment. They awarded one of their own – a blue collar Joe Average – at the expense of snobbish, spoiled and arrogant children of upper class parents.

Another big loser of Big Brother is Catholic Church, as well as all other conservative and right-wing elements of Croatian society. The reality show, despite being more show and less reality, presented the picture of Croatia many of them didn't like to accept – Croatia in which youth swears, smokes, drinks, gets sexually aroused and, last but not least, appreciates rock music. However, they could always claim (and have good grounds for that) that the show's contestants weren't the representatives of Croatian youth. In the show there was very little folk music, regional tensions, support for Ante Gotovina and right-wing causes – all those things you could easily find among younger generations of Croatians.

One of the biggest losers among institutions is Drama Arts Academy in Zagreb. It produced generations of actors incapable of working anywhere other than stage and whose inability to act in front of camera wrecked Croatian cinema and television for decades. All this became all too apparent with Big Brother – contestants, even with few acting skills or training, managed to look more natural and convincing than professional actors who couldn't act their way out of paper bag. RTL Televizija viewers had plenty of opportunity to be reminded of that – first during the live shows hosted by Daria Knez, than later with the arrival of Zabranjena ljubav, show heavily promoted as "Croatia's first soap opera" and aired half an hour before Big Brother. The latter received poor ratings and turned out to be one of RTL Televizija's failures.

It is harder to determine who among the contestants should be viewed as a loser. At this stage it appears that Zdravko Lamot might fit that role. He managed to go into the final and won second place against expectations of many. However, he was the only one to admit that he went to show strictly for financial reasons and the only one to admit that he had a carefully laid-out plan to win the grand prize. This tactic was carefully planned and carefully executed, but it was very wrong. It was based solely on his looks and assumption that the voters would be teenyboppers. He managed to survive nominations and destroy the faction of housemates that had stood in his way. But he did it at the expense of being cold, detached and obviously over-manipulative. In the end, his good looks were useless against Saša's (Sasa's) wife, children and huge debts. It also seems unlikely that he would exploit his fame. Career in entertainment industry is unlikely. This is not so because of his lack of emotions or communication skills. Few of homophobic statements are going to haunt him – Croatian entertainment industry, which, like any such industry in the world, contains more gays and Limousine Liberals than the average population, is not likely to embrace him.


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