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Big Brother Semiotic Analysis

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Big Brother Semiotic Analysis


This semiotic analysis will attempt to bring clarification to the persuasive symbols and messages used within the American version of the “Reality Television” game show “Big Brother”. The use of myth, metonymy, tokens, and connotation will be looked at, and will attempt to demonstrate how this communication event reflects and influences its receivers.

In order to understand the terminology and examples used in such an analysis, a brief history and description of Big Brother is necessary. Originally conceived by a production company out of the Netherlands, the Big Brother game show has appeared in 70 different countries and was first introduced to viewers in Canada and the United States in 2000. Between its introduction and the writing of this analysis, eight seasons of the American Big Brother have aired, one is currently in progress, and another is in the works.

Since its debut, the format of Big Brother has been altered slightly. Currently the game is played by up to 14 players over a three month period. These players are a mix of males and females who must live in a specially built house (permanently installed with 24/7 cameras) together, with no connection to the outside world. This means no newspapers, no internet, no telephone, and no television to watch themselves on. This is presumably because the presence of a television or computer would reduce the participants interactions with each other, which are the chief interests for viewers watching on their own televisions. The contestants’ incentive is a prize of $500,000, awarded to the “house guest” who survives the weekly process of elimination by their house mates. The program is unlike any that came before it as it offered the viewing public involvement in every moment of the contestant’s lives, and the opportunity to shape the events of the program through America’s Choice weekly votes. Cameras are placed everywhere in the house, including bedrooms and bathrooms, providing no escape from the public eye. Furthermore, footage from the house cameras is aired not only on television, but also on the internet, providing viewers with a means of being part of the action in real time. Originally thought of as a social experiment, Big Brother examines the interactions and relationships formed by strangers forced to compete against, and live with, each other.

A receiver focus:

In the case of Big Brother, the individual or the group being persuaded by the symbols exists inside and outside the Big Brother House. The contestants of the game show, also known as house guests, must be persuaded as much as the outside viewing audience in order to make the show work. Viewers believe that they are watching “Reality TV”. The idea behind reality television is that while the situations the “stars” find themselves in may not be real (or even everyday) situations, the emotions and the interactions the audience see are genuine. The contestants on such a television show must be as engrossed in the program as the viewers are in order for it to work.

Location of meaning: receivers.

The unique thing about reality tv “game shows” is the double set of receivers they’re speaking to. In television programming as we traditionally know it, participants in the creation of the show are being paid for their work. The actors on a television show do not need to be persuaded to the same extent as contestants on reality tv. Because the actors are getting paid, and a predetermined role is set out for them, the persuasion to be a part of the cast happens before the show is aired. Once on its way, the persuasion aspect of the television show is aimed primarily at the audience. This persuasion may be intended (cliffhangers persuading you to tune in next week to see what happens) or unintended (i.e. the adaptations of “Rachel Greene’s” hairstyle in the 1990s), but it is only the viewing audience that producers need to worry about. However, in Big Brother, the participants need persuading as well. The unique thing about Big Brother is that the game is happening while the show is not airing. So what viewers see is not necessarily the same as what contestants see, even though they are part of the same show. Although they are receiving the same message, the audience and contestants do not have the same knowledge about the given messages, making the meaning in them and the responses to them, different for each group. For instance, pure examples of persuasion are used most often in the house during speeches given by the contestants. These speeches may be given during nomination ceremonies, power of veto ceremonies, or before votes for eviction are cast. The speeches are made in order to convince or persuade the other house guests to believe or behave in a certain way. House guests use speeches to convince the others they have justification for their actions, or they use these speeches to influence the voting. Unfortunately, deception is part of the Big Brother game, and no one is forced to tell the truth during these speeches. Because the viewers of the game have access to information that contestants in the game don’t have, the messages given in these speeches are received differently by each group. Jimmy may persuade to Sally to keep him, allowing her to believe he is on her side. However, the outside viewer knows that Jimmy is really in an alliance with Susie, and so Jimmy’s speech does not convince them. Many house guests within the Big Brother house have successfully used deception and persuasion to make their way to the end of the show. A recent example of this tactic was seen in Big Brother 8, when a contestant named Mike deceived Erika by pretending to have romantic feelings for her. Because Erika reciprocated these romantic feelings, Mike was able to convince Erika to take him to the end with her. Unfortunately for Erika and the members of the jury voting for the winner, they were not privy to the footage of Mike conspiring with his good friend Will about using Erika. Viewers of the television show and online cameras knew this however, making their opinion of Mike and idea about who should win the game very different from that of the house guests.

Audience Analysis:

The show is marketed predominantly to a youthful/younger market. Contestants for the show are required to be between 21 and 45, but the viewing audience is a tad broader - mainly 18-40 year olds. The houseguests selected are usually attractive, athletic, or “alternative”.



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