Friday, July 08, 2005

Here We Go Again

Is it possible that this is the sixth season of the American version of Big Brother? It seems like only five years ago that we were marvelling to the antics of "Chicken" George and Will "Mega", not to mention the emotional wreck that was Karen. Ah yes, how times have changed.

The truth is that the first season of Big Brother was the only real season of Big Brother that North Americans have ever seen. The show, which had been a huge success in Europe when CBS introduced it in 2000, brought eleven people from across the United States together and locked them in a "house" together under observation 24/7. Based on what people on "the outside" saw they were supposed to phone in and vote for one of two "houseguests" who had been nominated for eviction by the other people "inside." The only problem - well one of the problems - was the show really didn't work in the Unites States. The show's ratings were nothing to write home about, although there are a lot of programmers today who would have loved the numbers that that first season of Big Brother drew. Moreover a lot of the viewers, who had been expecting either the metaphorical second coming or the end of the universe - depending on which critics they were reading - just found the show boring. Part of that could be attributed to the fact that things that could be shown on European and Australian versions of the show - nudity, swearing and generally boorish behaviour - couldn't be shown on American TV. Most importantly the viewers had been given something to compare Big Brother to, a little show that CBS had decided to sacrifice that summer of 2000 called Survivor. The ratings for Survivor were what the network had expected from Big Brother. Indeed even the Big Brother houseguests, who had seen Survivor before they went into the house, were in awe. When two people from the Big Brother house were taken to the Emmys the one thing they talked about afterwards was meeting Survivor Rudy Boesch.

CBS wanted changes made and they made this clear to the shows producers, Arnold Shapiro Productions and the Dutch media giant Endemol Productions. The result made the show more like Survivor to the point where it was a near carbon copy. Instead of challenges just being for food or rewards, one person would become "Head Of Household" (HOH) who got his or her own private room for the week. Instead of the houseguests selecting two people for eviction, that job was given to the HOH. It was the houseguests, not the viewers who were given the task of voting people out - the audience had lost their interactive capacity and were reduced to spectators. The show became at best an inferior carbon copy of Survivor with the players adopting the tactics that Richard Hatch had used so well in the first Survivor (and which most subsequent players have applied so poorly) complete with a final jury vote by evicted houseguests to decide the ultimate winner. The results in terms of ratings were slightly better, but not that much.

Season 3 saw the first of the gimmicks which my friend Ian J. Ball objects to so much. In that season the "Power of Veto" was introduced. It allowed the holder - who won a cheesy looking medallion in a competition - to remove one of the people nominated for elimination from the mix but couldn't be used on yourself until the last time it was used in that season. Moreover at one point during the season, when four players had been eliminated, the one of the evicted houseguests was brought back into the house, ultimately voted back in by their fellow players. If anything ratings for that season of Big Brother were down slightly from the previous year, but close enough to what they had been for the difference to be of little significance. In Season 4 the gimmick was the "X Factor". Several people in the house had been in relationships with other players. These ex-couples (get it) had in fact been recruited because of their previous relationships. There were fireworks - to the point where one of the contestants was removed by the producers after flying into a jealous rage, while the viewers also saw (or rather didn't see thanks to very large comforters and an awareness that they were on camera) a pair of contestants supposedly having sex - but the show had moved far from its roots. The fifth season saw a new gimmick. "Project DNA" actually had two. One contestant discovered that another was a sister he never knew existed, but the major twist was that one player was actually two - identical twin sisters who swapped in and out of the house for several weeks before they were allowed to reveal their secret. They didn't win of course.

This year there's another gimmick of course. Described by CBS as "The Summer Of Secrets" the show has started out with a new "house"; the old one - actually a number of mobile homes put together - was demolished to make room for new CBS offices. This one is apparently at least partially within a soundstage to ensure that there won't be much in the way of interference from the outside world. Unlike previous seasons where the sexes were balanced there are eight women and six men. Apparently one of the contestants is transgendered person. (If so I suspect it's Ivette, who claims to have a secret that none of the others will guess and despite the fact that we see her kiss another woman I don't think it's that she's a lesbian - every season has had at least one gay person in it.) The new house - a two story structure - apparently has secret rooms that the houseguests can discover and there are reportedly trapdoors in the "backyard". But the big "secret" is that the producers have totally abandoned the base concept that all of the contestants are strangers. Each of the contestants is in fact partnered with another person in the house with whom they have a preexisting relationship, but each pair thinks that they're the only ones in that situation. If they can keep the secret throughout the show and are the last two people in the house, the winner will receive $1 million while the runner-up will get $250,000. If a partnership doesn't finish first and second the winner will "only" get $500,000.

It's hard to write a real review of Big Brother based on the first episode. It's not that the show is too complex, it's just that even more than most reality programs this show lives or dies on the quality of the people in the cast and the first episodes presents the viewer with the same dilemma that the initial Head of Household faces in choosing the first nominees for elimination - we know virtually nothing about these people and the structure of the first episode means that we don't get to learn much about most of them. We don't know personalities yet, even though there are some forceful people coming to the fore, like Eric the fireman, and Howie the meteorologist. For now at least the new gimmick adds little to the show, to the point where we don't yet know who is partnered with whom. We don't even know yet how it will affect strategy; in the first episode's combination Food and Head Of Household challenge the optimal strategy for each partnership would seem to be for one partner to be on each team of seven competitors but since we don't know the identity of the partners we don't know if that plan was followed.

For better or for worse, Big Brother is the model for the reality-competition show industry that has grown to such large - and imitative - proportions. It is ironic of course that the show which was innovative in its international incarnations has been reduced to a rather pale imitation of another show in it's American version. Maybe Americans just aren't interested in participating in their own entertainment, although the interactive aspect of the show has successfully imported with American Idol and even Dancing With The Stars. It is also possible, I suppose, that the time wasn't right for the original concept and that if it were introduced today with greater online access (and using toll-free 800 numbers instead of pay to vote 900 numbers) the show as it was created would have been a bigger success. In the end however I think that the original American incarnation of Big Brother "failed" because it was being compared with Survivor. Both the structural changes in the elimination process, and the increasing reliance on gimmicks to keep the show "interesting" and "innovative" are the result. We'll have to see how that works out, but on the whole I feel they should focus more on getting interesting people and less on gimmicks to keep viewers involved.

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