Big Brother: Big Boredom
I remember when Cleveland television critic Bill Hickey was describing his impressions of ABC's Swiss Family Robinson in 1975 for Tom Snyder: "They better get some writers---and fast---and tell them to do something....like move!"
I couldn't have said it better about Big Brother after Wednesday's preview and Thursday's actual first show with all 10 contestants inside the house. Only in this case---we won't see any writers saving the day.
Wednesday's preliminaries to set up the premise and scenario was designed primarily to eat up an hour caroming off Survivor and keep the reality audience flowing. Nielsen suggests that was reasonably done; however, do we have a red flag in that the audience declined in the second half-hour before the group even entered the house? Everyone was introduced with the vignette profiles but: a) I hate not having last names again (even Survivor offered that on its debut; and b) that motorcade must have been a long, long, long way from Studio City to take 50 minutes to arrive at the house. Gracious, that show seemed to take forever.
Fast forward to Thursday night. At least a select percentage of my college students have been fans of The Real World. Accordingly, I watched the first half-hour with three 15-year-olds: my daughter and two friends----because this is the kind of audience CBS hopes to cultivate with shows like Big Brother. We had the pizza. We had the Cokes. We had the comfort of a large room. Only six minutes into the show, I was already hearing, "This is boring." After the housemates finished their initial refreshment around their dining room, I felt the same way. Fourteen minutes into the show, the girls dashed outside to play basketball and said, "Call us when Whose Line Is It Anyway? starts the second show."
Now, these were young people---only three years away from when the networks go after them with advertising pitches. Perhaps ol' Dad isn't all wrong about this show. Big Brother needs some big help.
Part of the problem is, compared to the lush setting of Survivor (and remember, I warned you about this a month ago), that house is going to be a stark, sterile contrast. You have your contrived, demographically-correct cast of characters. However, you don't have the exotic locale, nor an ocean, nor the hokiness of tribal communes.
Another thing which hurts here is the lack of a musical score. One of the few things I can stomach about Survivor is the music is creative and adds a richness to the hour. Big Brother is just too quiet by contrast.
The lack of prominence of a host in these half-hour editions may be Real World in texture but I can sense viewers gradually hitting those remotes in larger and larger numbers if the bulk of this show is just watching these ten go through highlights of their day.
Leave it to CBS again to put sex in a show airing at seven o'clock in the Central and Mountain time zones. Wednesday night, two of the contestants made quite clear they were not adverse to sex in the house. Funny, CBS and America Online say they'll edit profanity and nudity but left blatant sexual conversation. Plus, you have a guy who is supposed to be a youth counselor and the first example of him in the house is wanting to stay in the room with the women. That's genuinely compelling television, folks.
My attention span is better than my children's by a longshot but even I found myself about a third of the way through Thursday night wishing I were watching Drew Carey and friends on the other channel. Even a rerun of Me and the Chimp would have had more life.
What else could help? Too late now----unless CBS has put something in the bag we don't know about....but the production company should have shot a lot more footage of these people in their actual lives and placed a couple of two-minute vignettes as drop-ins during each episode. Somewhat the "up close and personal" style first used in television sports by Roone Arledge. At least, you could build a music track and draw a reinforced contrast of life in the house vs. their real lives.
In my opinion----and I could well be wrong----the best CBS can hope for is, as colleague Aaron Barnhart suggested to me Wednesday night, over five nights a week----people will sample two or three times, as they often do with late-night television. This show, over the long haul, will not do Survivor numbers---even close. At the very best, CBS could shoot off fireworks if Big Brother registers ratings similar to what ABC's Whose Line? did two summers ago (in the 8-to-9 range) when the media declared the improvisational show a hit.
Let me take you back to a previous column about this show. I am convinced more than ever CBS President Les Moonves' decision to pay $20 million for Big Brother was a defensive buy. He sensed he had one major summer hit. He didn't want ABC or Fox (both of which bid in the $16-18 million range for the rights from Endemol) taking this show, airing it against him and possibly coming up with a huge hit.
Three months from now, we'll know. However, first impressions suggest to me unless this thing picks up like a car at Daytona, ABC and Fox were lucky not to get Big Brother. The ratings will cool off fast because I simply don't sense the locale, this cast, nor the format will lend itself to America being glued five nights a week.
I have been outspoken at suggesting NBC Entertainment chief Scott Sassa, who is under major fire from his G.E. superiors for not developing a similar summer show (hey, Scott, even new episodes of Twenty-One would have drawn you a rating), displayed the height of arrogance when he suggested NBC was committed to doing television with a script. If Big Brother is rarely better than its first two offerings, I might have to begrudgingly suggest Sassa's suggestion might be a good alternative----at least in this one case.
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