CBS encountered quite a bit of controversy surrounding its summer hit reality show Big Brother this season. The show is a long running reality competition that’s usually a steady ratings hit for CBS, but is there any merit to it beyond the inherent thrill of schadenfreude every reality competition show inspires?
Big Brother pits a large pool of “houseguests” against each other in a series of challenges. The winner of each competition must then put other houseguests up for eviction, making for an all out cut-throat game of politicking and super cheesy confessional talking heads. It’s the kind of show that feels the need to constantly remind its audience of how each contestant “didn’t come here to make friends.” Despite its broadcast network sheen, this show is a pretty naked attempt at engineering situations for the contestants to backstab each other at every possible turn. Your mileage may vary on this type of cynical reality programming.
What’s been interesting about the show this summer is the controversy surrounding some of its contestants. Houseguest Aaryn Gries (among others) came under fire from viewers for her repeated use of overtly racist remarks toward black and asian houseguests. Viewers were outraged but CBS, in a moment of either a rare need to honestly portray its contestants, or more likely a cynical exploitation of incendiary language for ratings, decided to air the remarks in full on national TV. What results here is very interesting. Though CBS’s motive for airing these comments might be questionable, the effect is overall a good one; maybe it’s good for the viewing public to see that even regular people like themselves demonstrate casual racism in every day life without even being fully aware of it.
But before I get carried away and say Big Brother is doing a national service, this is a show that makes its contestants wear chicken costumes and eat sludge as punishments for not winning inane competitions. It’s a largely hollow exercise in ultra-cynical reality production, but it’s not without its moments of entertainment. It’s hard not to grow attached to at least one of the houseguests as you follow them trying to maneuver their way through a summer in a house filled with uniformly terrible people. And often the houseguests’ disdain for each other can be a source of fun for the viewer, but there’s not much there past the thrill of watching people struggle through a game on TV.