"Big Brother" flopping in the ratings

No wonder -- it's about 10 of the most excruciatingly boring bozos in the history of TV.


Joyce Millman
July 11, 2000 11:26PM (UTC)

It's time to dispel one of the most persistent myths about the new reality programming. People do not watch these shows for the voyeuristic thrill of observing others going about their most intimate business. No, the reality of reality TV is that we watch it because we're only looking for a good, mean laugh at some bozo's expense. Fortunately for CBS, the bozo quotient is high indeed on "Big Brother," the Eye's much-hyped addition to the reality lineup. Unfortunately, these are 10 of the most excruciatingly boring bozos in the history of TV. My God, if you want endless videocam footage of self-absorbed dullards yakking on and on and on, let me introduce you to a little thing called C-SPAN; it's the grandfather of reality TV and it's on 24 hours a day.

In case you haven't been paying attention to the "Big Brother" hoopla, congratulations. But seriously, here's what it's all about: CBS paid $20 million for the rights to make an American version of a Dutch TV sensation in which 10 strangers live together for three months in a house wired 24 hours a day with 28 cameras and 60 microphones. CBS constructed a small house on one of its studio lots in California's San Fernando Valley. There are no televisions, no clocks, no radios, no newspapers, no contact with families or the outside world.

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The contestants must amuse themselves in close quarters (there are only two bedrooms in the house) with their every move broadcast in condensed TV episodes and 'round the clock on the Internet. There are cameras in the bathroom, nudge nudge, wink wink, but, unlike the European versions of the show, CBS's won't show anybody naked or on the toilet. Every two weeks, the housemates choose two of their number as potential castoffs; viewers vote for which one gets the heave-ho. The last person left on Sept. 30 wins $500,000.

CBS has committed to running the show five nights a week, totaling 89 broadcasts, through the summer. Like "Survivor," it's part of the network's strategy to deliver younger eyeballs to perpetually old-skewing CBS programming. And, as with "Survivor," episodes of "Big Brother" are riddled with house ads for CBS's fall season.

"Big Brother" got off to a predictably rousing start July 5; slotted after "Survivor," it scored a monstrous 27 share in the Nielsen ratings. However, it's been downhill since then. The show is attracting viewers in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic and mostly winning its time slot. But the ratings shares fell precipitously with each episode last week; Saturday's one-hour recap pulled just a 10 share.

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The reason for the drop-off should be apparent to anyone who had the stamina to sit through last week's episodes: There is nothing happening. Not "nothing" as in "Seinfeld." "Nothing" as in nothing. It's not that the producers haven't tried mightily to rub sticks and stones together. The housemates are an allegedly diverse group of average Joes -- "allegedly" being the key word.

The contestants are Karen, 43, an Indiana mother of four who hates her husband and is ditching him and her kids for the summer; William, aka "Mega," 27, a youth counselor from Philadelphia who lays on the Mack Daddy moves around all the white folk; Cassandra, 37, an imperious United Nations communications officer who, as a sistah, is not amused by William's routine; Brittany, 25, an annoying Minnesota pierced punk/virgin with rainbow hair; Eddie, 21, a tough-talking broadcasting major who lost his leg to cancer; Josh, 23, a California college dude who brought a box of condoms along just in case; Curtis, 28, a Stanford Law grad who fulfills both the Asian and Christian demos; Jordan, 26, an exotic dancer/filmmaking student; Jamie, 22, the current Miss Washington USA; and George, 41, a roofer from Rockford, Ill., also ditching his wife and kids for the summer.

If this mix of personalities sounds remotely interesting, it's not. Miss Washington and the exotic dancer are not going to be shown getting naked. (You have a better chance of seeing flesh -- oh, OK, Richard's flesh -- on "Survivor.") The house is unappealingly furnished with what looks like bargains from an IKEA fire sale. The show is claustrophobia-inducing, and not in an interesting way. The highlight of Friday's episode was the younger women giving mom Karen a makeover. Then potential first castoff George, who is under the pathetically mistaken impression that he's funny, put on Karen's wig and danced around like a chicken. ("That is hilarious," pronounced Cassandra, not smiling.) In a suspenseful challenge from the "Big Brother" powers that be, the housemates were ordered to build a clock out of a potato. I can honestly say it was the longest 30 minutes I've endured since the premiere of "God, the Devil and Bob."

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Maybe a month from now, these useless, humorless roomies will come to hate each other as much as viewers seem to hate them. But it's doubtful. Ah, you say, but if we already hate the housemates, then hasn't "Big Brother" done its job? No. The trick to making an entertaining peep show, as "Survivor" or "The Real World" has shown, is to make us hate the people on it, yet still want -- no, need -- to watch them. We may laugh at the castaways, but, deep down, we are fascinated by the dark forces that motivated them (greed? masochism? hubris? insanity?) to take the "Survivor" challenge. After barking B.B. and rude Rudy and man-hating Sue and acerbic Richard, the "Big Brother" housemates come off as hopelessly square; laughing at their naive attempts to be naughty would be too easy. Friday night's episode of "Big Brother" led into the weekly airing of that geriatric hidden-camera show, "Candid Camera," and the juxtaposition embarrassingly underscored just how unhip "Big Brother" is.

Besides, whatever you may think of the castaways, they're outside, in a breathtaking paradise, spearing eels, barbecuing rats, working up a sweat in physical competitions. But with "Big Brother," we are watching 10 people who are basically under house arrest. How stupid do you have to be to volunteer for that?

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Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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