Aussies in midst of reality check

'Brother' scandal leads to gov't probes, new regulations for shows in genre

With the ink on the "Big Brother" winners' checks barely dry after the July 30 season finale in Australia, regulators are still outraged at a sex scandal on the show that shocked the country and brought a harsh spotlight on the entire reality genre here.

The "Brother" episode in question has led to a set of ministerial directives that place new boundaries on the exploitation of vulnerable reality show contestants. Producer Endemol Southern Star and broadcaster Network Ten already are looking at how an eighth season of the reality show might shape up next year.

"Brother" suffered a 10% ratings decline for Ten this year, the worst in the program's seven-year history. Analysts believe that the franchise suffered from the axing of the more risque "Big Brother Adults Only" program, done in response to the now-infamous incident that involved one contestant using his penis to slap the face of a female contestant. The incident led to allegations of sexual harassment and the ejection of two castmates from the program in 2006.

It also triggered two investigations by broadcast regulator the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the latest of which found that, despite a barrage of complaints, the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice was "providing appropriate community safeguards for reality television on free-to-air TV."

But Australian communications minister Helen Coonan recently called for tighter self-regulation of reality programs and told broadcasters to prevent "the demeaning or exploitative" portrayal of "vulnerable competitors" following the release of the report.

She also insists that broadcasters will have to improve the way they handle complaints. As a result, industry body Free TV Australia will provide ACMA with a monthly report.

The ACMA investigation found that "many people are concerned about the way in which vulnerable contestants can be exploited in a reality show context for entertainment purposes," Coonan said.

While Network Ten and Endemol Southern Star executives declined comment on the shape of the program next year, industry observers believe that one key way to revive ratings will be to bring back a version of "Adults Only."

Ironically, Coonan's calls for tighter self-regulation could pave the way for a clearer set of guidelines to be adopted in commercial TV codes regarding the extent of material in and warnings given for mature adult programming.

Meanwhile, media analysts have warned that Ten needs to be less reliant on "Brother" as ratings wane, so the network is expanding what it bills as its "event TV" lineup next year. Ten is preparing a homegrown version of "So You Think You Can Dance," to be produced by FremantleMedia, which will join "Biggest Loser," "Brother" and "Australian Idol." In addition, it will air a local version of "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" this year.

Nine Network also is boosting its unscripted lineup in 2008 with an Australian version of the NBC hit "The Singing Bee" and the CBS game show "Power of 10," while market leader the Seven Network will continue with ratings powerhouse "Dancing With the Stars" as well as "It Takes Two" and "Australia's Got Talent."

The pay TV business has developed its own successful franchise with "Australia's Next Top Model," one of the sector's top-rated programs this year. Also on the slate is the Dutch format "The Singing Office," which premieres this month, and "Project Runway Australia," developed as flagship programs for Fox 8 and Adriana channels, respectively.