LONDON: The television show Big Brother will be remembered for many things: Pioneering reality TV, turning ordinary folks into instant (often baffling) celebrities, testing broadcast decency laws.
But for me, the memory that stands out from its first series in the UK, back in 2000, is of watching its grainy online video stream.
At the peak of the dotcom boom, broadcaster Channel 4 took what was already a bold idea — filming a group of strangers 24/7 — and pushed it even further by deciding to stream the whole thing live on the web.
Some of the biggest audiences online were when something so controversial was happening that the show’s producers pulled the plug. Being one of thousands of people simultaneously watching the internet equivalent of “hold music” made me feel both ashamed of myself and very modern.
THE RISE OF TIKTOK
Twenty years later, television and the internet are still trying to figure each other out.
TikTok, the short-form video app that has teenagers hooked from Beijing to Los Angeles, gets the closest yet. As soon as you open it, the visual and sonic barrage begins: Dance routines by awkward teens, quick-fire pranks and strikingly creative editing, usually soundtracked by energetic pop music.
Though online pioneers such as Netflix and the BBC’s iPlayer have given viewers new flexibility in when and where they watch, broadcasters have largely struggled to invent truly “digital native” shows.
So it is striking to see how tech companies are taking inspiration from the television formats of yesteryear. More than anything, TikTok’s fastidiously silly clips remind me of You’ve Been Framed! or America’s Funniest Home Videos, which have clung on to their place in the TV schedules for 30 years.
Dating shows such as Blind Date, meanwhile, have been reimagined as Snapchat’s Phone Swap, where contestants judge their potential mate based on the unfiltered contents of their iPhone.
The live quiz show app HQ Trivia takes inspiration from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Jeopardy.
These are still tech companies — or at least they want to convince investors that they are worth Silicon Valley-style valuations. Yet unlike, say, Facebook and Twitter, they are not afraid of being seen as media producers, making editorial judgments and — to a certain extent — taking responsibility for what viewers see.
With hundreds of millions of people using it, TikTok is the most ambitious attempt to balance user-generated content with something akin to traditional programming.
Anyone can create a video with the app’s inbuilt editing suite, but to ensure that it contains no banned content such as weapons or nudity, TikTok employs a combination of AI and human moderators.
The moderation team — which now runs into the thousands globally — is also responsible for trying to nudge TikTok’s community into creating content on a particular theme, with hashtag-based “challenges” such as #fingerdance, #jumpontiktok or #petsdoingpeoplethings. You could almost call it programming.
This kind of staffing is expensive but TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance is not alone in its approach: Apple’s News app and Snapchat’s Discover section have also emphasised the value of editors.
Those moderators are playing a positive role in curating content, which contrasts with the defensive position that Facebook and Twitter find themselves in as they try to weed out abuse, political manipulation and other nasties.
TikTok is not without the risks for younger users that crop up on any internet platform, but for the most part it feels more innocent and genuinely fun than what has come before it.
The challenges that Big Brother’s livestream presented to broadcasting standards 20 years ago seem trivial compared with the abuse that Facebook and its ilk have spawned.
But TikTok shows how synthesising the human touch of traditional media and technology can revive something we did not realise we had lost as TV went digital: Good old-fashioned, wholesome light entertainment.