Big Brother 15: CBS’s gigantic disconnect

If you were ever tempted to believe that ‘reality’ TV accurately reflected the events that occurred during taping, this should fix that wagon.

In case you have better taste than I do, Big Brother 15 is the current season of CBS’ reality’ franchise, in which some 14-18 ‘houseguests’ take up residence in a sound stage mocked up to resemble a large ‘house.’ They get little to no news from the outside world except in the most serious cases, such as 9/11, when one contestant had a relative in the WTC (happily, the relative was uninjured). Each week, contestants compete to become Head of Household, which has perks, including nominating others for a live eviction vote. There are more twists and curves involved than a debate with my wife, but that’s the game in a nutshell. It lasts between two and three months, with taped shows airing twice weekly and a once-weekly live show. Live camera feeds are available for subscription, which makes it impossible for CBS to cover up the full story. Even when they cut all the feeds, contestants are sure to discuss events spontaneously after the fact.

Over the years, there has been plenty of drama on the sound stage. With dozens of cameras and microphones inside the residential portion of the sound stage, CBS has a vast surplus of footage available per week, compressible into about an hour and a half of TV time. You’d expect a lot to fall through the cracks, but you’d like to expect that you got a representative sample of how people acted.

Nothing of the kind.

We’ve had a few near-fistfights, a lot of tears, some sexual activity, plenty of nudity, shouting matches, outright delusions, meltdowns, ejections, a knife held on someone, vandalism, and quite a few objectionable comments. We got to see most of that unfold, most of the time, on some level–it was the sort of TV the producers love. (By the way, the production company is called Endemol. Who came up with that name? It sounds like a medication you’d hear about on pharmercials. “I was always listless and depressed. My spleen seemed out of whack. I had lost my sex drive and had a craving for raw leeks. So, despite never having heard of it before, I asked my doctor about Endemol.”)

This season, it’s gotten bad. One contestant, Aaryn from Texas, has behaved like a narcissistic ‘mean girl,’ throwing out ethnic and homophobic remarks that have earned her the nickname ‘Aryan’ from recappers. Another, Gina Marie from Staten Oiland, hasn’t been much better. Contestants have sarcastically ordered Helen, the affable Asian mom and political consultant from Illinois, to ‘go cook some rice.’ They’ve mocked Candice, a resilient African American speech therapist from Houston, for the size of her derrière (which isn’t even that substantial). Every season of BB has one visibly gay man; sometimes they also cast a lesbian, though it’s always a lipstick lesbian. This season’s visibly gay contestant is Andy, a witty public speaking professor from Illinois. It didn’t take the bigots long to locate the word ‘faggot.’ And none of the racism and homophobia is any secret to anyone in the house; Howard, a sincere, ripped African American youth counselor from Mississippi, has said on the live feeds that he has to bottle up most of what he feels in order to get through the game. I’m impressed that he can. There have also been anti-Semitic slurs. The more of this I learn, the more I respect the minorities in the sound stage, and the more I want them to win simply because their path to victory will be that much harder, thus more well deserved. I want to see them celebrate as, one by one, the bigots get booted.

And this brings us to the gigantic disconnect: the TV show has shown none of the bigotry. I suspect CBS was told by its advertising sponsors: “Do it and we’re done with you.” It’s not that the word isn’t out. Gina Marie (pageant production) and Aryan (modeling) have already been sacked by their real-world employers; the press release from Gina Marie’s employer was corrosive. Thanks to the live feeds, and those who recap them (my brain would suffer irreparable harm), the whole nation knows or can know the truth. Yet CBS refuses to show it, even though people using vile words like ‘nigger’ or ‘faggot’ would certainly spike ratings as people would watch in outrage. What cannot be hidden is Julie Chen’s obvious loathing for the cast. I’ve never felt much sympathy for Chen until now. I can only try to imagine how she felt when Aryan described Helen as the first Asian she’d ever met who wasn’t doing her nails.

Yeah. It’s that bad.

There’s a movement to have the bigots kicked off the show, and of course the usual “We Hate PC” counter-movement. Here’s the thing: if CBS did boot them, they’d have to field awkward questions about why they failed to televise the bigotry to begin with. That would prove to even the most gullible that what they see is not representative of reality. I myself don’t think the bigots should be ejected from the game, because then we wouldn’t get the joy of watching them crushed. I want the targets of their abuse to have the satisfaction and material rewards of well-earned victory. I also believe that it’s important for us to see that, while these attitudes may be in decline, they are not dead, and they still need to be countered and rejected by honest women and men. I do think it’s dishonest of Endemol and CBS not to show some of the despicable behavior, so that the casual viewing public remains hoodwinked, and so that they can duck some of the controversy–and, if my analysis is correct, keep the ad dollars.

Reality TV is unreal. Never forget that–or if you didn’t grasp it, know it now.

Update: one of my favorite blogs, angry asian man, seems to see this as I do.

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