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'Big Brother' Is Emulating Its Big Brother

The CBS series that watches housemates' every move returns with a new producer and an idea borrowed from 'Survivor.'

July 05, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Though there has been plenty of hanky-panky and even sex in European versions of the Dutch import "Big Brother," the cast from last summer's inaugural U.S. version seemed hormonally deprived.

So it may be noteworthy that the shelves surrounding the bathroom mirror in the redesigned house for "Big Brother 2," which premieres tonight, are stocked with cotton balls, Q-Tips, several types of sun block and a canister stuffed to the brim with Trojan condoms.

Unlike "Survivor," which became a cultural phenomenon in its maiden flight on CBS last summer, "Big Brother" failed to catch on. The series averaged about 9 million viewers--a respectable number based on summer standards, improving on CBS' usual performance among younger age brackets--but it didn't build over time or generate much buzz beyond its core audience.

In addition, the program drew criticism both for the producers' attempts to manipulate the contestants and the lack of drama within the house, where 10 people were sequestered in pursuit of a $500,000 top prize.

Clearly, CBS is hoping the new version will be different, implementing changes in the game and adding a new producer to oversee the show in Arnold Shapiro, who won an Emmy and Oscar for his acclaimed documentary "Scared Straight!" and also produced the long-running CBS series "Rescue 911."

"This is not to encourage people [to have sex], this is for safety," Shapiro said regarding the condoms, adding that contestants have been tested for AIDS and hepatitis.

Still, Shapiro is readying the blurring machine just in case the castmates indulge in any on-air nudity and sexual shenanigans.

"I think there is the possibility of more uninhibited behavior among some of these people than last year," Shapiro said. "We are not directing these people or controlling these people in any way. They are going to do what they want. The intriguing thing to me is if some of that behavior occurs.... I don't think the viewers are going to know whether they are doing it out of genuine lust or desire, or whether they are doing it as part of a grand manipulation to win the game."

In some respects, "Big Brother" is still the same, following a group of strangers as they live together in a small house outfitted with 38 cameras and more than 60 microphones recording their every more around the clock. Their activities will also be shown in streaming video on the Internet, where the show developed a small but loyal following last year.

Several rules have changed, however, among them that the contestants will vote one of their members out each week--mirroring the pattern from "Survivor"--as opposed to letting viewers make that decision. The consensus was that the TV audience voted out the most interesting "house guests" early on.

CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem contends that the media came down too hard on "Big Brother" last year. "From a [demographic] perspective, it was a success," she said. "From an economic standpoint, it was an economic success. Creatively, we saw the potential. It was worth bringing back, but obviously there are things that needed to be changed. Arnold came in with such wonderful ideas. He had a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the series."

Shapiro saw it as a challenge to breathe new life into "Big Brother," which still originates from the CBS/Radford lot in Studio City.

Instead of airing six days a week, CBS has trimmed the show to three days--Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday--through mid-September. And while CBS News' much-derided Julie Chen returns as host, she'll broadcast from a new mini-studio in the frontyard of the "Big Brother" house, without a studio audience.

This year's edition also features a dozen housemates instead of 10--six men and six women. "We have the most dynamic, competitive, outgoing and, in some cases, outrageous cast that any reality show has had," Shapiro stated. "We were looking for highly competitive people--these people have their eyes on the prize every minute of their waking state."

Last week, CBS unveiled the inhabitants, who range in age from 28 to 46. Shapiro said the contestants underwent thorough background checks as well as psychological evaluations.

Perhaps foremost, "Big Brother" has been redesigned to put an emphasis on competition within the group. "All competitions relate to living in the house--some are mental, some are psychological and some are physical," Shapiro said. "Each week there will be a competition that will result in the kind of food or quantity of food or absence of food you'll have in the coming week. The only staples are unlimited quantities of peanut butter, grape jelly and water. There is also competition for certain privileges."

The house itself has also been completely reconfigured and redecorated, with last year's rather spartan Ikea furniture replaced by furniture and items from various boutiques. The living room walls are a dark red and brown, and the red confession room has been transformed into a dark blue and purple "Diary" room.

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