We Cannot Say Big Brother Naija is Unimportant How the Reality TV Show is Shaping the Politics of Young Nigerians

We might say that Big Brother Naija is a distraction. We can suggest that there are more serious things to turn our attention to. But, this author argues, we cannot deny the impact the reality TV show has had and continues to have on socio-political discourse in Nigeria.  

My friends and I spent many afternoons in the first few months of 2017 luxuriating in the cascading shade of the trees that lined the senior staff quarters of the University of Nigeria Nsukka. We would come together, phones-in-hand, under the excuse of ‘gathering materials for our final year project’. What we really did was scroll through Facebook and harass strangers that brought any Big Brother Naija or ‘BBN’ gist to our timelines. One person would spot a post related to BBN and tag the rest of us in the comment section, where we would begin our inquisition.

Our belief was simple: we were the serious people who saw how much of a distraction BBN was. We believed that people who watched BBN were part of the problem with Nigeria. We would list a litany of social issues that Big Brother subscribers should be addressing instead of wasting their time on ‘such low entertainment’. When we finished dragging them, we would return to our hostels with the movies we had downloaded. We neither discussed these national problems among ourselves nor did we seek out the kind of socio-politically conscious TV shows that might have backed our sanctimony. Instead, we returned to our dubbed versions of How To Get Away With Murder and La La Land.

Big Brother first aired in the Netherlands in 1999 and quickly became a worldwide sensation. In 2000, countries such as the United States, Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom aired their own versions of the show, becoming the first set to hop on the franchise. In 2003, Big Brother Africa, a franchise of the reality TV show for the African region, began airing on the pan-African satellite television service, DStv. Big Brother Africa ran for nine seasons before getting discontinued by 2015. What exists today as Big Brother Naija aired its first season in 2006. It was suspended in 2007 and returned to air in 2017.

Back then in Nsukka, we considered BBN a waste of time. What we did not realize was that anything significant enough to have us spend hours arguing with strangers on the internet is everything but unimportant. Of the numerous African shows that are aired on television, BBN has had the highest viewership and online engagement in the past year with over 14.6 million mentions from over 4.9 million fans in the three months it aired. More than 900 million votes were cast by fans by the time the fifth season of the show ended in 2020 and digital impressions ran in the billions. To say that all of this does not amount to a socio-political reach of some consequence would be to lie.

KICKSTARTING COMMENTARY, LAUNCHING CAREERS

Over the years, BBN has fuelled commentary on issues like lifestylebody image, and homosexuality in Nigeria. Many times, this begins with everyday discussions between housemates. The viewers, in turn, are compelled to consider and debate diverse viewpoints on various subject matters. Conversations and lifestyles in the Big Brother house generate a ripple effect among the show’s viewers. In February 2021, the story of a fan who tattooed ‘Ka3na’, the name of a housemate, on her thigh made the news after, receiving criticism from the same housemate, she attempted suicide. BBN has also generated commentary in the form of written rebuttals, such as those addressing regressive discussions about topics like sexuality.

BBN has been a sure way for emergent entertainers to gain social capital. On many occasions, contestants such as Tacha (BBN, 2019) who entered the Big Brother house with reportedly less than 400,000 followers across Instagram and Twitter, have come out to millions of social media followers, an army of ‘stans’ and what feels like endless stream of brand endorsements. Former contestants like Bisola (BBN, 2017), Efe (BBN, 2017) and Laycon (BBN, 2020) have also thrived as entrepreneurs, musicians and actors. The nearly instantaneous fame BBN affords housemates is among the drivers of its vast number of audition entries (40,000 as of this year).

The effect of BBN fame does not begin and end with the young people who make up a significant portion of the show’s audience; it also extends to recognition among the political elite. In 2020, Governor Dapo Abiodun of Ogun State awarded Laycon N5million, after Laycon won BBN. Similarly, when Miracle Igbokwe won the grand prize in 2018, Rochas Okorocha, the governor of Imo State (Igbokwe’s state of origin), gifted him with land and cash. Given that at this time, the government of Imo was owing its staff salaries, this move raised questions about which was more important between rewarding participants of a gameshow and paying civil servants.

FROM IDENTITY TO INFLUENCE

Viewers who watched the second (2017) and sixth (2021) seasons of BBN realize how integral a contestant’s origin story is to their chances of winning. While Ejeba Efe Michael, the winner of the second season, rode on the wheels of his heritage as a Warri boy and popularized the phrase ‘based on logistics, Warri no dey carry last’, Whitemoney, the star of the sixth season, wore his Igbo identity in his dressing and accessories, attracting votes from people who could relate. The cultural renaissance embodied by these contestants was a major factor that endeared them to the viewers that voted for them.

One cannot talk about the impact of BBN on socio-political discourse in Nigeria without talking about its connection to perhaps the largest form of civic engagement within Nigeria in the last eight years, the 2020 #EndSARS protest. The protests started on 03 October 2020, in response to the gruesome murder of two boys by Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) officials. Tacha was among the few young celebrities that amplified the protests early on. On 04 October 2020, she posted a video asking Nigerians to follow up their hashtags with a protest until SARS was disbanded. She was not alone in calling for a peaceful exercise of the right to protest.

BIG BROTHER AND NIGERIAN POLITICS

According to political scientist, Bofamene Joseph, ‘the problem with Big Brother is that there is no clear measure of its impact on political discourse in Nigeria.’ While Joseph agreed that Big Brother has made some impact on Nigerian political discourse, she told me that more times than not, this impact is negative and should be measured. ‘For instance,’ she explained, ‘Nigeria has its national elections coming up, but in the past few days, Big Brother Naija has dominated most discussions among young people.’ Twitter, which can be used as a barometer for socio-political discourse, she added, ‘has been overtaken by discussions of Big Brother.’

To remedy this, Joseph suggested:

The organizers of the show can weave discussions of the electoral process into the show to keep the youths informed and their minds on the forthcoming election. What aids political discourse is public support, and right now, Big Brother has all the public support the youth—an important population in forthcoming elections—have to give.

Innocent Ilo, an economist, believes BBN serves several kinds of purposes. According to Ilo, BBN ‘is an escapist show like every other reality TV programme. It allows the viewers live vicariously through the people in the Big Brother house and that serves some social purpose.’ As for driving socio-political discourse, Ilo believes the show achieves this through its contestants. ‘Asides the small talk on politics you hear from the housemates every now and then, ex-Big Brother contestants have been seen to make socio-political impact in the society,’ he told me. ‘We saw it with Tacha during #EndSARS and we saw it again, this time with other former contestants, too, in the voter’s card registration sensitization.’

Ilo also pointed out that while there is a wide spectrum of what is considered ‘socio-political discourse’, BBN contributes to that discourse and is of other cultural importance. ‘Of course, there is always room for improvement, but that does not mean it is unimportant,’ he added.

Five years ago, I would have disagreed with the notion that BBN was of any socio-political significance in Nigeria. However, watching the ongoing Big Brother Season Seven and seeing contestants such as Eloswag come into the house with hoodies suggestive of their political leanings and sparking public reactions, it is clear that BBN facilitates some form of socio-political discourse among everyday Nigerians. We might say that BBN is a distraction. We can suggest that there are more serious things to turn our attention to. But we cannot deny the impact BBN has had and continues to have on socio-political discourse in Nigeria

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