Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Live, Cause You're Living Today

Barring a deal- and honestly, I'm increasingly doubtful that one will be reached (though I've made wrong predictions here before)- on August 2nd, the United States will default on its debt.

We've already covered here a rough overview of what would happen in a default. Pain. Lots of pain.

And also, reality shows.

In our last talk about debt default, it was noted that when Argentina defaulted in 2002, as part of the fallout, their local television stations moved heavily towards reality shows. They are the cheapest to air, and anything else was simply too expensive to keep the network afloat. So if and when we default, if you don't like reality shows, bad news: it's gonna get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

And with reality shows come people you really don't want to get to know very well. You may have wondered at some point what would happen if a reality show simply filled the cast with generally decent people who enjoyed each others' company. What would happen if there were a reality show without jerks. Without contrived conflict.

It has already happened. And it was a laughingstock.

Flash back to July 2000. The first season of Survivor had just wrapped up a few months ago. It was not merely a smash hit, it was an American cultural event. How much of one? Ask around, and odds are eventually you will find someone who can, 11 years later, still give you the first and last names of all 16 original Survivors. Not only that, they could quite possibly name them in the order they were voted off. Some of them, such as Richard or Susan, can still be found kicking around the news wires every so often. Others, such as Colleen and Greg, have essentially dropped off the face of the earth with no intention of being found again. It took the Survivor Sucks board's "where are they now" thread, named for fan favorite Colleen, until this past June to get a lead on Colleen's current whereabouts after a four-year search- apparently, she's a producer for an intentionally-unnamed company in New York and, while as good-natured as she was on the show, really wouldn't mind if people stopped bringing up her Survivor tenure to her because it was a whole entire decade ago and she's done other things in her life too, you know. The search for Greg has been entirely fruitless.

I, incidentally, happen to be one of those people that can still name all 16. Play along if you wish; the answer is at the end of the article. Needless to say, you've already been given four first names.

Now try the same thing with any other elimination reality show, including future seasons of Survivor. Including shows that are airing right now. I'd bet cash money that you can't do it. That's how big Survivor 1 was.

A few months after that, Survivor's network, CBS, launched the second reality show of the modern era (which basically means everything but Real World and An American Family). This second show had already proven itself in Europe as a drama-filled screamfest.

This show was Big Brother.

The format for the fateful first season was quite different from the form Big Brother currently takes. In Big Brother's 2000 incarnation, ten people were placed into the house. There was no immunity, merely nominations. Each week, each contestant would nominate two of their fellow contestants for elimination. The two with the most votes would be put to a vote amongst the audience, who would decide which one left.

This sounds reasonable enough. It worked just fine in Europe, and would continue to work fine, with various tweaks, as each of the international editions ran through their respective lifespans (or continue to do so). Even so, America's Big Brother, in its current format, is a unique incarnation. It remains the only version of Big Brother, out of 45 franchises worldwide (one of which happened in the online game Second Life), to have the contestants vote each other out directly.

America's Big Brother 1 is why.

Big Brother 1 opened to high hopes. Much was made on premiere night about all the cameras in the Big Brother house, the total lack of privacy, how the toilet was the only place where footage would not be broadcast-- unless, of course, things started happening in there.

Here's that happening:

Who's that guy? I have no idea. I forget. But look at he and main-and-soon-only host Julie Chen go on and on about this house and what a huge event living in the house is going to be. Look at the sheer production made out of this. Look at the crowd gathered to see them go into the house. This went on for the rest of the premiere. Clearly, everyone involved expected another huge hit. Clips from foreign versions were played as well, just to make everyone aware of exactly what to expect.

Had they cast properly, odds are they would have been just fine. A game that takes the ultimate power of elimination out of the hands of the players requires a cast that is naturally antagonistic, that needs little to no prodding to set upon itself, so as to create more interesting television. An audience, or at least an American audience, is not overly inclined to provide a large cash reward to someone they find abhorrent. Should a contestant figure this out and become more likable than the others, all the nominations in the world will not eliminate them, as the audience will vote to save them every time. Their victory is assured. Therefore, a good cast must be full of people to whom such a thing would never occur while in each other's company.

Big Brother 1 had two contestants that fit this role: Will "Mega" Collins of Philadelphia, who upon his elimination would be revealed as a Black Panther, and Jean Jordan, a stripper and exotic dancer from Roanoke, Virginia who went by her last name.

The problem, of course, was that there were ten contestants, not two, and none of the other eight would prove to have much of a problem with each other. They did, however, have problems with William and Jordan; William quickly made enemies by accusing fellow contestant Brittany Petros of racism. So when it came time to nominate two people for the vote, William got 6 nominations out of a possible 9, and Jordan, who hadn't exactly been friendly either, got 5. Nobody else got more than 3.

Uh oh.

William was promptly booted. Jordan was the subject of a campaign by David Letterman, also of CBS, called "Save The Stripper", in both rounds 1 and 2.

It didn't work. Jordan was the second person cut loose, with New York lawyer Curtis Kin kept in favor in the Round 2 vote. Gone were the linchpins of drama in the Big Brother house. And with those linchpins gone, the other eight came to enjoy each other. And with little to do in the house but hang around, talk, and participate in the occasional reward challenge- some of which were done over the course of an entire week- all drama vanished in a flash. The house had eight nice, decent people, and nobody there to wreak havoc as they sat around and generally enjoyed each other's company for the remainder of the summer. Voting held little interest for them, because all eight knew that in the end, the audience would decide which of them would win. So they all just hung around and let the audience do just that.

Jim dandy if you're one of those eight. Absolute catastrophe if you're a producer looking to get ratings out of it.

Third to go was Karen Fowler of Columbus, Indiana. Why did she leave? She asked the audience to vote her out so that she could see her kids.

The fourth elimination saw the votes fall in such a way that five of the seven contestants were tied for second. Had one vote fallen differently, all seven would have been tied with two votes each. This is how much they acknowledged their ultimate control over their fate. When the audience voted out Brittany, the surviving contestants all ran to the walls of the house and screamed "WE LOVE YOU, BRIT!" as she departed.

Double uh oh.

In Round 5, the contestants openly talked about mutually splitting the money for the top three places- the only three that earned money- evenly amongst themselves. Ratings were plunging. "Chicken" George Boswell of Rockford, Illinois, who got the nickname from caring for the chickens the house was given, debated whether to lead the house in a mass walkout, which would basically bring the season to a screeching halt.

This could be exploited. In fact, the producers had little choice.

First, CBS played up the walkout in an attempt to boost ratings. Second, they grabbed an alternate from the casting process, Beth. She described herself as "opinionated" and a "bitch". She was a bald-faced attempt to inject drama back into the house. The only problem was, in order to get her into the house, someone in the house would have to leave voluntarily. The producers weren't particularly worried. After all, George was leading a rebellion! They were going to offer $20,000 to the first person to volunteer, but, as they stated, only the first person. So speak up quick! Beth, for her part, was informed that upon entering the house, if she won, she would only be eligible for $140,000, an amount based proportionally on the amount of time she would be in the house.

There were just two little snags in this plan:

1: By the time of the live elimination show, the walkout had been cancelled. "The Chicken Man's staying." And so was everyone else.

2: When actually offered the money, none of the contestants wanted it. The offer was upped to $50,000- "third-place money", as Chen made sure to note to the contestants. And remember, one of you is leaving tonight in sixth and getting nothing! You might as well take it! Come on! Anyone!



Pretty please with sugar on top we're on our knees begging here?

No takers. Beth would never enter the house. The elimination proceeded as normal, knocking out Cassandra Waldon of New York City, and the season proceeded to play out its boring, boring life. By the time it got down to four, said four were given the task of playing the show's official board game. It was a long way south of the sex, profanity and titillation promised on premiere night. When those four went to nominate for eviction, it was, in fact, a four-way tie.

Eventually, the game was won by Eddie McGee of Commack, New York, who received 59% of the final, three-way vote. Eddie was a one-legged cancer survivor. Audiences, at least what is left of them, feel warm and fuzzy giving money to one-legged cancer survivors when given the option to do so.

At the finale, Will Mega proclaimed that, without him, the show was "Big Boring". He found little disagreement, and while the producers were duty-bound to put a happy face on the numbers in public, behind the scenes they bowed to reality.

The season was swiftly disavowed. The game format was torn down and rebuilt from the ground up to become "a summer-long power struggle", with twist after twist dominating the proceedings ever since. Contestants would now not only nominate each other, but vote each other out directly, veto and/or replace each other's nominations, compete against and alongside exes and blood relations and previously unknown blood relations and former contestants, and institute Survivor's jury system, in which previously-voted-out contestants vote for the winner. Only two people would ever be nominated at a time from then on. For several years afterward, not only was Big Brother 1 not mentioned by the show, but future contestants were asked not to bring it up either. The house was changed. The logo was changed. The theme music was changed. The live audience would not return until season 10.

The only true nod to Big Brother 1 came in season 7, an all-star game, in which all previous seasons contributed at least two players to the cast... except Big Brother 1, which contributed one out of a sense of obligation more than anything else. The producers sent in Chicken George. Placed in a game alien to him and thrown to the wolves against some of the most skillfully manipulative people ever to play a game that now attracted them like flies, he came in 5th in a field of 14, surviving three consecutive nominations before losing to eventual winner Mike "Boogie" Malin of Concord, New Hampshire.

This time, people were actually interested in seeing how he did.

Three postscripts to this story:

1: Will Mega ran for Philadelphia City Council in 2003 as a member of the Education Party, describing himself as a "hip-hop political activist candidate". Shockingly, this didn't work.

2: In season 12, the American producers made another attempt at adding a Beth-style mechanic to the game. This time, they added a 'Saboteur' to the initial cast, Annie Whittington of Tampa, Florida. She was not eligible to win, but if she could wreak five weeks of havoc in the house without being voted out, she would win $50,000.

She was voted out in round 1. In fact, she was voted out unanimously. This was the big twist of the season. Panicking again, in round 5, another player, Ragan Fox of West Hollywood, California, was offered the Saboteur role for two weeks and $20,000. He warily accepted and avoided eviction, though only because he had won the right to veto his own nomination in the second week.

3. In case you're wondering about the article title, at one point the Big Brother 1 contestants were subjected to their own season's theme song. It had lyrics.


As for the identities of the original 16 Survivors, in the order of their ouster, here's the answer: Sonja Christopher, B.B. Andersen, Stacey Stillman, Ramona Gray, Dirk Been, Joel Klug, Gretchen Cordy, Greg Buis, Jenna Lewis, Gervase Peterson, Colleen Haskell, Sean Kenniff, Susan Hawk, Rudy Boesch, Kelly Wiglesworth, Richard Hatch.


Pinyan said...

Oh, Big Brother. How shitty you were (and remarkably, still are). Now, some nitpicks and personal observations:
First of all, your timing is slightly off. At the time of Big Brother's premiere, Survivor was not even halfway through its first season. Both were summer filler. Survivor hovered around 25 million viewers each week from episode 3 until the penultimate episode, with the last one over 51 million viewers (BB1's ratings are, shockingly, not posted on Wikipedia).

I thought both shows were horseshit at first, but watched the Survivor finale and was hooked enough to watch the next several seasons cover-to-cover. I probably can't anymore, but for a good 5 years after it happened, I could name all of the Season 2 cast in order. And of course, I got involved in online Survivor RPGs. [hat tip, mutters something about Nork]

But even though it became a Survivor clone, I always thought Big Brother was a steaming pile.

Aaron Allermann said...

...oh, hell, you're right. I was looking at Survivor's film dates and not the air dates. I screwed up.

Anonymous said...

Survivor RPG's? Who could possibly pull such a "Gimmick?" --Erik