What went wrong

In Europe, the "Big Brother" houses featured catfights, sex and nudity. How did America's turn out so different?

By Martha Soukup
September 10, 2000 4:15AM (UTC)
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If the "Big Brother" house residents persist in their plan to leave the house on live television this Wednesday, the big question, of course, is what CBS; Endemol, the Dutch show creators; and Evolution, the U.S. production company that's been doing the day-to-day work, will do with this decision.

Last Wednesday, we saw that the producers were $50,000 worth of desperate to buy out a houseguest -- any houseguest -- and replace that person with a new, hopefully more interesting resident: sexpot and self-described "bitch" Beth.


No resident would take the $50,000 buy-out offer, and now they have agreed as a group not to take ten times that much. CBS would have loved to have one of them out of the house. All six of them, however, will leave CBS with weeks of six-day-a-week programming to fill. The network could restock the house with a new group of residents, but it's difficult to see how the show could live down the embarrassment.

CBS was looking for the conflict and sex that the European versions of "Big Brother" have provided in spades. Residents regularly bedded each other in those versions; in Germany, one female houseguest regularly bared her breasts for the camera.

Americans, it turns out, are strange when it comes to realilty: They don't boff for the camera. And when it comes down to it, they aren't even in it for the money.


A lot of by-the-numbers opinion pieces about what "Big Brother" said about exhibitionist, shameless America will have to be quietly slid into the bottom of the archives. This group of Americans chose, instead, to bond together against the people who made the rules.

And to lead a strangely polite revolution. They're not walking tonight. They're giving CBS until Wednesday to spin the episode any way they like, hoping CBS will get "World Series ratings" out of their walk-out. (Whether that's remotely possible remains to be seen.)

Eddie put it this way: "We're gonna dick 'em. And if we're gonna dick 'em, they're gonna need a little lubrication."


Meanwhile, his more idealistic housemates think this could be CBS's way of giving back to America, by showing people making a decision based on higher principles than greed.

No, they really do.

Cassandra, the African-American United Nations worker who has maintained her dignity and her awareness of the cameras at all costs, brought up the "Karen Springer Show", a Big-Brother assigned skit in which everyone was given a very undignified role to play. She's been arguing with the "Big Brother" producers, in the Red Room, ever since then that they must be more respectful of her situation.


Jamie, the Washington state beauty queen, said it was by deciding to walk away from Jerry Springer-dom that Oprah Winfrey has become "an icon."

Josh, the self-described genius who vouchsafed the secret of the outside pro-George campaign, displays relief at every turn. He says the premise of the show is that a group of people become closer, like a family -- and then have to turn on each other and vote each other out, all out of greed.

"We don't have to be on that downward spiral of greed," he says.


The "Big Brother" housemates, media-savvy, are determined not to be Darva Conger.

Curtis the quiet lawyer and Eddie, the athlete who lost a leg to cancer at 12, are more pragmatic. They just mean to leave CBS with something they can spin for positive ratings: a little lube.

Surely the show's creator, Paul Romer, has heard his beeper go off a thousand times today. The U.S. producers are spinning their wheels -- thinking, presumably, making phone calls, doing calculations. The houseguests have stopped following instructions, selectively: They'll adjust their microphones when asked, but they won't go inside when Big Brother instructs them to.


What went wrong in America? Why don't we have the crazy sex, the near-fistfights, the steady walkouts and replacements that England and the other European shows have seen?

The television show is generally boring. The live shows have been astonishingly lame. The producers have over and over shown they aren't really paying attention to the people they have under their cameras 24 hours a day: Paul Romer told reporters he was certain someone would walk for $10,000; no non-professional watching the Internet feed would have thought so. (Ultimately, of course, the residents turned their noses up at five times that amount.)

The producers seemed surprised and a little hurt that the houseguests took exception to their having Eddie call three of his housemates "bitches" in a pre-scripted joke.

The fascinating thing about Big Brother is only available to those who watch the Internet feed and see how the television show reveals the producers' misunderstandings, if not distortions.


Despite this potential debacle, there's a good chance "Big Brother" will be shown again. The networks are in an awkward position next season: They're looking at possible simultaneous actors and writers strikes.

That's why there are so many reality shows and game shows on the drawing boards. There will be a "Big Brother 2," and whoever does the day-to-day production of that one (perhaps not Evolution, this time, after the results of this one) is going to be trying to take lessons.

Will they cast it entirely with nymphomaniacs and would-be Richard Hatches?

But even Paul Romer has said that Hatch, the winner of "Survivor," would have been voted out of the "Big Brother" house by the American public. With what must have been considerable frustration, he told interviewers that American viewers are taking a friendly attitude in their voting, voting to keep people in the house who can get along, rather than to keep in the villains that would get them "Survivor"-style ratings.


Frankly, they've got the voting system backwards. People only bother to make a 99-cent phone call when they're motivated. When it's a negative vote, they vote for the people they have negative feelings about.

A positive vote -- a system in which the person with the most votes stayed -- would never have voted kooky Brittany out. Nor, probably, Jordan the head-gaming ex-stripper.

It's hard for me to suggest to Romer that he needs to put in a system that probably would have banished underrated Curtis, whose humor and dead-on Eddie impersonations rarely make the broadcast, very early.

But it's a better answer than casting a mental asylum.


Meanwhile, a group of six Americans have decided to turn down money (though not, they can only hope, fame) in order to stick together against a "Big Brother" that's tried to pit them against each other.

That's great television. It may not be the "history" the housemates are currently describing it, if only because they don't have that size of an audience. But it could be great, great television: the unexpected, the revolt of the little guy, idealism over greed -- America! Great television.

If the producers can play it right.

There's the rub.

Martha Soukup

Martha Soukup is a Nebula-award-winning science fiction writer. Her new short-story collection is "The Arbitrary Placement of Walls." She does her daily eavesdropping in San Francisco.

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