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The eyes have it
Big Brother’s addictive omnipresence

It’s a concept that would have been laughed out of most network offices 10 years ago: rig a brand new, lushly appointed house with 47 cameras and 76 microphones, then sequester 14 people inside for three months and let them cheat, bicker, and flirt. Today, of course, the result is an international smash. First airing in Holland in 1999, when nine volunteers were filmed for 100 days, the show inspired local versions from England to Australia to the US, where the sixth season has just begun. Big Brother (CBS, Tuesday at 9 pm, Thursday and Saturday at 8 pm) is creepy voyeurism at its worst and addictive television at its best.

Although you’d expect a show named for the oppressive government entity in George Orwell’s 1984 to be ubiquitous, Big Brother is more like omnipresent — which is exactly why it works. Not content with the thrice-weekly hour-long shows of previous seasons, CBS has bulked up coverage for BB6 with a saturation ad campaign and cross-promotion appearances by " evicted " houseguests on its morning programs. On www.cbs.com, there’s HouseCalls, a daily talk show devoted to all things Big Brother. You can view pictures from the current houseguests’ digital camera and read blogs by past contestants, all moderated by — who else? — " Winston Smith. " The most bizarre and fascinating aspect of Big Brother is its 24/7 live video feed. Available on the CBS Web site for a fee, it gives you all-day, every-day, crystal-clear picture and sound from within the house, with four different camera angles to choose from. If that sounds ridiculous, it is. But it’s also brilliant: the availability of the houseguests and your freedom to choose what to watch give the feed an edge over " documentary " reality shows like The Real World and Survivor. The Thursday TV program is even broadcast live.

Big Brother’s excessive coverage is driven by the game’s complex mechanics, which involve six major events per week leading up to the $500,000 grand prize. Three of these are " house meetings, " in which a guest is evicted after a household vote. The other three are competitions, both physical (usually involving the back-yard pool) and mental (quick-response memory tests), in which the contestants can obtain not only power within the house — such as becoming the coveted Head of Household, the person who does the nominating — but also creature comforts from the outside. The weekly food competition divides the houseguests into teams, letting them duke it out in Fear Factor–style gross-outs or more poolside shenanigans in order to decide who gets tasty meats and booze and who’ll be dining on peanut butter and jelly. How important is the food contest to people who are housebound 24 hours a day? After just a week in the house, one of them ate a snake.

Whereas weekly shows rely on heavy editing and good-guy/bad-guy characterization, on Big Brother there’s nowhere to run. Every burp, blemish, and bad hair day is monitored, and even if it doesn’t make the network-broadcast cut, there are a dozen message boards dedicated to the live feed. The camera doesn’t flinch from verbal ugliness either. Already this season, several houseguests have been heard making racist comments. " Sensitive artiste " Michael asked Cuban comrade Ivette, " Is your favorite movie Scarface? Did your parents die on the raft? " Maybe that’s no surprise: whereas past years have seen older and more diverse casts, 10 of this season’s 14 houseguests are white and under 35.

Which is not to say that opinions don’t change and houseguests can’t redeem themselves. There’s the usual reality-show marathon scheming, but with this particular chess game, you can see every move unfold as relationships start up, break down, and reverse entirely. That’s what makes Big Brother the realest of the reality shows. That and the snake eating.

Issue Date: July 29 - August 4, 2005
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