Last summer, CBS had the distinction of broadcasting both the best and worst new television shows of the year. Survivor, with its slick production values, Machiavellian personalities, and nearly (sometimes completely) nude bodies, took the TV-viewing nation by storm and spawned a wave of “reality” based entertainment which has only begun to wane with Survivor‘s season in the outback. At the same time, Big Brother debuted to some of the worst ratings, flimsiest production, and most boring characters ever seen on television. And yet, the show ended up engaging the sparse viewership it had with a suspense CBS could never have anticipated.
I was first drawn to Big Brother by the fact that it was such a bad show. I couldn’t believe that, after more than half a century of television, the makers of this series could come up something so obviously doomed to fail. The house where this all unfolded was less interesting than a prison. Whole thirty-minute episodes were devoted to the “house guests” sitting around talking about nothing (suggesting that Seinfeld was indeed inspired TV). Despite this inactivity, the show was on four to five times a week. And, precisely because viewers had the opportunity to watch the house guests 24 hours a day through webcams placed throughout the house, nothing happened. Having been given the opportunity to be on TV, it seemed like the house guests didn’t know how to behave and therefore acted as politely as possible. Richard Hatch was nowhere in sight and the few Big Brother fans who watched loved this fact.
Then the show became something altogether different, not for anything CBS had done, but because a group of internet fans had decided to sabotage the show. People began to pay plane companies to fly banners over the house insulting one or two of the house guests. Banners then appeared claiming deceit and betrayal by one or two of the contestants. Soon the house guests began to dread the sound of planes flying overhead. One internet group—MediaJammers—flew banners and shouted over the wall outside the house, trying to convince the house guests to stage a walkout. What was fascinating was that the contestants almost took them up on it. They began to discuss the possibility of sharing the money rather than backstabbing each other to win it. They talked about the contracts they had signed and wondered if CBS was required to give someone the prize even if they all left the house early.
Eventually, there came a day when they had all decided to leave. They liked each other too much to sink to the level of the game. They were going to sabotage the show and there was actual excitement both within the house and on the internet where all of this was unfolding in real time. And then Eddie (the one who ended up winning) decided that he couldn’t go along with the plan and they all went back to the game and to the show’s tedium. To me, this was the most exciting television of the summer because the audience not only participated in the show, but also almost succeeded in ruining it. At a time when popular entertainment is expertly packaged to sell products, the possibility of bringing down TV was truly exhilarating.
Now Big Brother is back and, as can be expected, CBS has taken precautions to prevent the type of truly original and surprising TV some of us witnessed last summer. For one, the public no longer votes (via a 900 number) on who gets kicked out of the house each week. Strategizing in the house is now much more along the lines of Survivor, where it can sometimes be to one’s benefit to keep truly obnoxious people around (unlike last year, when the public immediately voted out all of the most contentious and most interesting contestants). The house is now more than just a box, with colorful furniture, a hot tub, and even a lazy susan (unthinkable in last year’s house). The show is only on three times a week, giving producers more opportunity to fill in screen time with more carefully edited imagery than people staring at each other for five minutes. And the 24-hour internet feed costs $19.95, ensuring that only the most committed viewers will get full access. (After all, it seems too contradictory to give $19.95 to CBS to then watch the webcams in order to criticize the network.)
What CBS has done is make Big Brother look and feel much more like its other hugely successful “reality” franchise. Big Brother is like Survivor‘s little brother, and I have to admit that the show—as a show—plays much better. There’s more backstabbing, more colorful characters, more TV drama. It’s unfortunate, however, that has to come at the expense of the very real drama of last year’s show. If the most compelling question the first season of Big Brother asked was, “Can six people by themselves bring down a television show?”, CBS seems to be answering, “No.”
Personally, I prefer to answer, “Not yet.”