Meet "Big Brother"

Behind the scenes on the hit TV show, an army of watchers and editors chronicles every move of a dwindling cast.

Published August 8, 2000 7:42PM (EDT)

I am on the outskirts of the lair of "Big Brother." "There it is," my guide says, pointing to a prefabricated single-story structure of gray wood paneling and tinted windows. Beyond its walls, four 25-foot pillars rise into a cloudless sky, each dotted with hooded cameras staring down. "That's the yard."

With the exception of those pillars, the nondescript jumble looks just like any other temporary building on CBS's Studio City back lot. It is a furiously hot day in Southern California's San Fernando Valley; we hurry past the building to the suites that lie just past it.

I'm dropped in an office, given a cup of water and seated before a television set displaying a four-way scene. "This is what goes out on the Internet," my guide says, "all four streams." It's the "Big Brother" house, live, the most monitored building in TV history. On one camera, Jordan, the self-absorbed stripper, is in the bathroom brushing her teeth. In another, Curtis, the indistinct lawyer, is combing his hair. And calm Cassandra's in the kitchen brewing coffee.

The fourth camera shows me a bedroom scene -- some residents are still asleep, and it strikes me that the others have just risen. "They're staying up all night partying," my guide explains, "and getting up really late. Big Brother's going to have to give them a gentle warning to get back on a more regular schedule. We run a skeleton crew from 2 to 6 a.m. It's hard for us to track them if they're up all night long." I can't take my eyes off the TV set. All they're doing is getting up. But it's positively addicting.

CBS launched "Big Brother" a month ago in the wake of a fanfare of publicity; the show was the network's second foray into reality TV, after "Survivor." On the surface, the shows bear some similarities: A group of people are plopped down, cut off from society and forced to make the best of a decidedly unnatural situation. How each behaves determines how long he or she gets to stay in the group.

But that's where the similarities end. "Survivor," with its faux tribalism and "Lord of the Flies"-esque who-should-we-vote-out-this-week aesthetic, seems almost anachronistic next to "Big Brother," with its 24/7 surveillance, 28 cameras and strictly circumscribed universe. If "Survivor" is a trial by fire, "Big Brother" is a crucible. And while CBS cobbles together an hour of programming from "Survivor" each week, "Big Brother" demands commitment from both its subjects and its viewers, with half-hour installments on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and hourlong segments on Wednesday and Saturday.

It is an ordeal as well for its creators. To work such a miracle, there has to be a master magician behind the scenes, translating the dross of everyday life into something interesting enough to be broadcast on a national TV network. That would be Robert Caplain, the show's senior story producer and, in a very real sense, the living embodiment of Big Brother.

Although "Big Brother" has no story, and no script, someone has to weave the threads spun from each of those cameras into an interesting narrative. That's Caplain's job. After working on the standard fare of hourlong dramas and half-hour sitcoms, Caplain joined MTV's "Road Rules" from its third through eighth seasons, doing much the same thing he's doing now -- taking miles of footage and turning it into compelling viewing. But "Big Brother" is very different from its reality predecessors. "With 'Road Rules,' I'd have eight weeks between the time the footage was shot and the day it aired," Caplain says. "On 'Big Brother,' I have 12 hours."

The tight schedule of "Big Brother" forced the creation of a new production methodology for television. Where "The Real World," MTV's original reality series, might have a dozen people working to produce an episode, "Big Brother" has a staff of nearly 150, a veritable army of story editors, editors, producers, sound editors, camera operators, "shaders" (who match the light level from camera to camera), switchers, production assistants, interns and so forth.

The numbers are necessary because of the panoptic proportions of "Big Brother": At any given moment, three story editors sit in the master control room, carefully watching the 28 cameras for signs of interesting activity. If they spot something worth capturing, the output from that camera gets routed to one of the four feeds that get recorded to tape. (These are the same feeds that go out live on AOL's Web site for the show.)

A "logger" works with a story editor, keeping a record of all of the details captured from a camera once it goes into the feed. These notes are reviewed at the end of the day by the story editors -- overseen by Caplain -- and become the fragments that, when edited together, become the next night's broadcast. It's labor-intensive, time-consuming and often results in very little of value. A conversation -- as interesting as it might seem at the time -- might reveal very little about a particular house member's feelings or motivations.

Another complication is the round-the-clock nature of the production. The story editors work eight-hour shifts in the master control room, which means they might miss the slow developments leading up to a meltdown of one of the home's residents. If they fail to catch the buildup, the punch will have a lot less impact. So someone has to keep the world of "Big Brother" inside their head nearly 24 hours a day, noting all the swirling subplots as they grow into full-blown events.

That's Caplain's job, and probably the reason he looks so tired: He's on the set from 6:30 in the morning till 1 a.m. the next, and has been doing this seven days a week for the past month. "I told my friends not to call me until October," he quips. (There is a certain irony in the fact that "Big Brother" has robbed Caplain of his life, too.) In the truest sense, "Big Brother" is his creation, because he sees the whole story unfold before him. He watches as all of the intrigues and petty games unfold on the four-part screen, making the mental notes that he then brings to the daily story meeting, producing a whole from the fragments the story editors have caught on the feed.

"This show would have been impossible to do even two years ago," Douglas Ross tells me. One of the show's two executive producers, he delights in the advances that make "Big Brother" a reality. Real-time video editing systems, designed by Avid, provide the technological underpinning that allows a small corps of editors to produce a broadcast-quality show in just a few hours. "There's no time to create a show. 'Big Brother' is paced more like real life."

Which means it's often as thrilling as watching paint dry. But that hasn't seemed to slow the steadily increasing demands on the live video streams being broadcast on the Internet. "People are using it like some sort of screensaver," Caplain says. "They just keep it going for hours." What is it that all these people in the "Big Brother"-less world are looking for? "It's a classic soap opera," Ross replies. "The story goes on and on. It doesn't need a resolution." Or any of the cliffhangers that are the bread and butter of melodrama. "If you accept the conceit of it," he concludes, "it's a way we can see people being themselves."

Caplain goes off for a chat with one of the show's producers, and I get to spend a few minutes talking to Peter Robinson, a recent graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television -- and a former student of mine. He's now one of the loggers who work nine-hour shifts in the master control room, noting the minutiae of the residents' lives as they come off the feeds. Does he find it boring?

"Sometimes," he replies, "but I've spent so much time with these people I've started to get into their heads. There's a big difference between the way the residents view themselves and how they act. They're out of touch with what they're doing, and how their actions affect others. And I've learned that there are three sides to every story; his, hers and what really happened. Well, make that four sides, because the camera has its own take on the story, too."

When Caplain returns from his meeting, we visit the editing suites. Joanne Detora sits in front of a bank of monitors, moving her mouse this way and that, as Josh -- the house's semi-official boy-toy -- shaves his chest. It's video purloined from a behind-the-mirror camera in the bathroom. Does he know there's a camera there? "Yes," Caplain replies. "In fact, he's the one who pointed it out to the other residents." There's a frank bit of debate between Caplain and Detora about the meaning of Josh's next move: a finger-lick and nipple-rub. Is it autoerotic behavior or is he just cleaning a few stray hairs from his chest? It seems innocent enough, but -- if you run the video back and forth enough -- you begin to suspect that Josh knows he's performing for the camera, and expects this footage to end up on the show. (Indeed, it does.)

And that's one of the major differences between the American production of "Big Brother" and its sister shows in Germany, Holland, Spain and Britain. The European producers told the American crew that the residents would ignore the cameras after about a week. But they haven't. They talk to the cameras, perform for the cameras, and -- most importantly -- censor themselves. They're always conscious that they're on TV, inside a fishbowl that has made them household names. Even if none of them know it for sure.

Caplain's got to get back to work -- he's already eaten into his afternoon with this interview, and this evening one of the residents (Jordan, as it turned out) will be expelled from the house in the show's weekly live broadcast. That process of expulsion is one of the most interesting aspects of "Big Brother." Unlike "Survivor," the "Big Brother" participants can only propose members for removal. The audience disposes, via a 900 number. So in a real sense, this is interactive television; the viewers have veto power over the makeup of the house. It also means that the producers of "Big Brother" have very little control over the direction the show takes. "There's no chance to shape it," producer Ross says. "The audience gets the final say." That may sound like publicity-speak, but it's certainly true that the disruptive, sexually provocative Jordan would have been one of the network's last choices for expulsion.

Everywhere throughout the offices of "Big Brother," closed-circuit television sets display the four-way feed. And although people have jobs to do, a show to produce, people often stop what they're doing and watch them intently. "We're just as addicted to 'Big Brother' as anyone in the audience," Caplain confesses. "Because we don't know what's going to happen next."

By Mark Pesce

Mark Pesce is the co-inventor of VRML, the Virtual Reality Modeling Language. His next book, "The Playful World : How Technology is Transforming our Imagination," will be published by Ballantine Books in October.

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