Channel 5’s Big Brother is facing a string of investigations by Ofcom after more than 1,200 complaints about incidents including a black contestant being called a gorilla and housemates labelled retards.
The media regulator is investigating three incidents, which have attracted a total of 1,225 complaints, to see they breach the UK broadcasting code.
The incident that prompted the most complaints from viewers, 1,108, involved housemate Conor McIntyre being abusive to Miss India UK title holder Deana Uppal.
McIntyre was warned about his behaviour by Big Brother, in which he used a string of expletives and called her “a piece of shit”. The incident occurred at 9.40pm on 25 June on Richard Desmond’s Channel 5 show.
The second incident involved housemate Caroline Wharram calling Adam Kelly, a black contestant, a “ridiculous gorilla … with no sanitation”.
Ofcom received 114 complaints from viewers about the perceived racial slur which occurred on 28 June at 10.25pm.
On 4 July, a former Big Brother housemate, Victor Ebuwa, appeared on spin-off show Big Brother’s Bit on the Side.
Ebuwa referred to the housemates as functioning retards, which prompted three complaints to Ofcom. The incident occurred at 11.20pm.
“Channel 5 is committed to complying with Ofcom’s broadcasting code and will help to facilitate a speedy investigation into this particular episode of Big Brother and Big Brother’s Bit on the Side,” said a spokesman for the broadcaster.
A spokeswoman for the Equality and Human Rights Commission said it would not be looking at the incidents as broadcast falls outside of its enforcement remit.
The official sponsor of Big Brother, the celebrity edition and spin-off show Bit on the side is hair colour brand Schwarzkopf.
The brand has featured extensively throughout the programme – including having the housemates and presenter Emma Willis dye their hair the brand’s distincitve red colour – as part of a wider £2m tie-up with parent company Henkel.
Henkel’s deal includes TV idents for the Schwarzkopf brand as well as product placement deals for Right Guard deoderant and Theramed toothpaste.
A spokeswoman who handles the for Schwarzkopf tie-up with Big Brother had not responded to a question about whether the brand would stand by its sponsorship deal with Channel 5 in light of the official investigation by Ofcom.
But some TV fans were sceptical of complaints about a show now in its 12th controversial year on UK terrestrial television.
“The show, for years now, has catered for freaks, outcasts, extremes in society,” said one commenter on the Digital Spy website. “It therefore seems a bit rich that anyone who, this far down the line, still tunes in every night can get that morally outraged and shocked when an idiot makes some stupid remarks.”
Another said: “Complaining to Ofcom is just silly and complaints will make producers more aware of what to broadcast, meaning things will be presented in a positive way all the time to avoid backlash or complaints even if that is not the case.”
The commenter, WhatJoeThinks, said that complaining to Ofcom about the behaviour of a Big Brother contestant is “like asking the police to get somebody sacked from their job for misconduct”.
Ofcom’s investigation has shades of the infamous Shilpa Shetty race row that floored Channel 4 and effectively spelt the beginning of the end of the broadcaster’s longstanding relationship with the Big Brother franchise.
Allegedly racist comments were made by Jade Goody, Danielle Lloyd and Jo O’Meara about Bollywood actor Shetty, who eventually won the celebrity edition of the show and was referred to as “Shilpa Poppadom” by Goody, and the resulting furore prompted 54,000 complaints to the media regulator and Channel 4.
Channel 4 received a stinging rebuke from Ofcom, which following an investigation deemed the broadcaster had committed a “serious error of judgment” airing four incidents of alleged racist bullying, and resulted in then chief executive Andy Duncan to admit it needed to think of viewers as “real people, not ratings”.