When she was first approached to host the CBS reality competition show “Big Brother,” in the summer of 2000, Julie Chen Moonves didn’t know what to think.
The series, in which 10 real-life strangers would live together in isolation for nearly three months under continuous observation to compete for a $500,000 cash prize, was an adaptation of a somewhat obscure Dutch program that few outside the Netherlands had heard of. Reality TV itself was still a novel concept: “Survivor,” one of the earliest reality shows, had only started airing about a month before Chen Moonves, who had been working for CBS at the time as a morning news anchor, was offered the job.
“I was very confused, and as a journalist I had a million questions,” she said in a late July phone interview. “What is this show? Where is it? Why me? I didn’t know what to expect. I pictured it like ‘Survivor’ with air conditioning.”
“Big Brother,” which premiered on July 5, 2000, has just entered its 25th season. Chen Moonves is still the host, and “‘Survivor’ with air conditioning” is still a pretty accurate description. Like that network peer, “Big Brother” has weathered vitriolic criticism, survived seismic changes to the landscape of television and endured countless trend cycles in both reality TV and network programming as a whole. It has outlasted hundreds of would-be competitors, and it continues to attract millions of viewers each season — not only through the waning era of broadcast but more recently as a surprise streaming hit on Paramount+.
Its continuing success — the Aug. 2 Season 25 premiere was the most watched show of that night — is good news for CBS, particularly right now: With labor negotiations stalled between Hollywood’s studios and its writing and acting guilds, networks are even more dependent on reality programming like “Big Brother” for new content. (Most reality TV jobs are subject to different labor contracts.)
All of which raises the question: How has “Big Brother” managed not only to stay on the air but also to thrive?
The first season of “Big Brother” was an exercise in crude and somewhat leering TV voyeurism. Contestants, referred to as houseguests, were filmed around the clock as they performed menial tasks, made small talk and formed social (and sometimes romantic) relationships, not unlike on MTV’s early reality prototype, “The Real World,” which started in 1992 and had a brief heyday in the 1990s. One houseguest each week was selected by an audience vote to be “evicted” and taken out of the competition until only one victor remained.
Although the season put up “solid numbers,” The New York Times reported in August 2000, the prevailing sentiment at the network was that it lacked tension, and many senior CBS executives were disappointed with the show and its ratings. For the next season, the following summer, CBS brought on the executive producer Allison Grodner “to revamp the creative,” she explained in a recent interview, “and come up with a format that would be a little more friendly to U.S. audiences.”
“We decided to turn the game in on itself and have the players vote each other out,” she said. “That created this very tight dramatic storytelling machine — a complete 180 from the first season.”
Reimagining the show as “a reality soap opera,” as Grodner described it, she created a new weekly competition within the series, called the Head of Household, that would alter the balance of power and help determine which contestant would be voted out next.
With players no longer having to appeal to the audience for votes, the game was no longer a popularity contest: Houseguests had to navigate the hierarchy of the group and maneuver carefully to avoid what they called “the chopping block,” where they were at risk of sudden eviction. Alliances were formed and betrayed; players engaged in surprisingly complex power struggles. And the show, which in its first season had been widely considered a bore, was instantly riveting.
The new format worked so well that, except for a few superficial refinements, it has not changed since. “The game engine is so solid and delivers comedy and drama and all the things you could want from a show,” Rich Meehan, a longtime executive producer of the series, said in a phone interview. “Even when we’re developing twists and turns, it’s always in the same world with the same type of gameplay.”
What does change every season is the cast. One of the pleasures of watching “Big Brother” is seeing how a new group of individuals is going to measure up to the challenges the audience knows so well. Houseguests with unique approaches or subtle strategies are hailed by fans and crowned with labels like “comp beast” (one who excels at competitions) or “floater” (one who deliberately avoids attracting attention). Houseguests who do or say objectionable things are vilified and are often publicly called out online for their bad behavior. Almost all of the participants leave the show with some level of fame (or notoriety) they did not have upon entering.
When the contestant Britney Haynes was voted out of the house toward the end of the 12th season of “Big Brother,” in 2010, she assumed that she had come off as boring and plain. Instead, during the season finale she was voted America’s Houseguest — essentially the audience pick for favorite player. Watching the series, she said in a recent interview, was “insanely different” from experiencing it.
“When you are in there, you really have no idea what you’re doing; nothing about what you’re portraying or presenting or trying to do is in any way related to what the outside world is going to think about you,” she said. “I thought I was a wallflower. I thought I would be on-air for about 20 seconds. It was a complete shock to win that — almost as good as winning the money. I was honestly shocked that anyone even knew who I was.”
Other houseguests have been less lucky. Minutes before being chosen as the winner of the 21st season, in 2019, the contestant Jackson Michie was asked on live television to answer for accusations that some of his behavior during the season had been racist and sexist. He defended himself, but he looked downtrodden as he later walked onto the stage amid explosions of victory confetti. (He has since apologized and admitted blame.) After a houseguest named Aaryn Gries was caught on camera making racist and homophobic remarks, she was interrogated by Chen Moonves during her exit interview.
“It became personal for me,” Chen Moonves said. “But I wanted to give her a chance to explain herself. She was young.”
Racism has been a recurring problem for the show. It’s not just that some contestants are recorded saying racist things: Historically, Black houseguests have struggled to advance in “Big Brother,” and former Black players have said that they felt targeted for early eviction. Attempts to diversify the cast have not always helped: During the 21st season, in 2019, four of five nonwhite contestants were evicted within the first five weeks.
In 2021, after more than two decades on-air, “Big Brother” finally crowned its first Black winner. The milestone came after members of an all-Black alliance known as “The Cookout” shrewdly navigated the game by keeping their true allegiances under wraps. Xavier Prather beat the runner-up Derek Frazier to win the $750,000 grand prize.
Prather was well aware that as a Black player he faced an uphill battle. “It was something I was cognizant of,” he said in a recent interview. “I am a six-two, 200-pound athletic Black man — I can’t approach the game the same way that a slim, five-ten white man can, because we’re perceived differently.”
“To assume that I could approach the game the same way would be to assume that I could approach life the same way,” he continued. “‘Big Brother’ is literally a reflection of our society, and that’s something that everyone in the Cookout was conscious of and had an unspoken understanding about.”
In his season, Prather was determined “to make sure ‘Big Brother’ crowned its first Black winner,” he said. “If that was me, great. If not, I wanted to make that happen either way.” The next season was won by Taylor Hale, a Black woman.
For the time being, Prather said, “we’ve made progress.”
Such controversies and social victories have had seemingly little effect on the success of “Big Brother.” The ratings fluctuate within a consistent, generally favorable range. CBS is happy enough with the show to keep renewing it, but only one season at a time. And while the longevity of the series has silenced some of the more superficial dismissals — Chen Moonves said that “the snobs and the meanies have stopped calling us a fad” — the series has not exactly aged into prestige or critical acclaim.
“It’s evident in all of our many Emmy nominations,” Grodner said dryly. (The show has never been nominated.) “We have our fans, but we’re still the ugly duckling of the entertainment world.”
How long it can keep on going? Even after 23 years, its creators aren’t sure, even as the continuing strikes make reality TV more valuable to networks. “I always wonder, every year, Will it come back?” Grodner said. “CBS has always supported the show. We have this amazing fan base. But nothing has ever been guaranteed. It still isn’t.”
“Over the years, we’ve seen shows skyrocket and then fall off, skyrocket and then fall off,” Meehan, the executive producer, said. “We’ve never been that show. We’re solid. We’re just the steady show that works.”
Content Source: www.nytimes.com