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For Better or Worse, Show Will Be Historic

'Big Brother 2' could set a new low or its producer could be bold--by pulling the plug or showing reality in all its ugliness.

July 13, 2001|JEFF OSWALD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's too early to tell if producer Arnold Shapiro--an Academy Award winner for the documentary "Scared Straight!"--will succeed in rescuing "Big Brother" from the bottom of the "reality TV" ratings barrel. But even if you're not watching, you're probably still going to be hearing about it around the water cooler and in the news.

"Big Brother 2" will be as notorious as CBS' mega-hit "Survivor" is popular. Indeed, Shapiro has already secured a dubious position for "Big Brother 2" in entertainment history. Whether he does so as a hero or a goat remains to be seen. In ruthlessly casting the show with sexy, competitive contestants, Shapiro may have done too good a job and bitten off more than he can chew.

CBS' first attempt drew disappointing ratings and was mostly ridiculed by critics and the public. CBS blamed the cast and a Dutch production team that wasn't entirely in tune with the concept of American entertainment. Shapiro promised exciting changes designed to stir controversy and hinted of prime-time sex and evil deeds with a wink and a nod.

Anyone familiar with the coma-inducing first season yawned and muttered, "Yeah, right." Yet as millions ignore "Big Brother 2," they miss the compelling nature of the live Internet feeds offered on the CBS Web site. While CBS televises three hours of highlights each week, it also broadcasts 24 hours a day to Internet subscribers, who get the obvious voyeuristic thrill of watching competitors cooped up in conditions similar to that of the prison Shapiro encountered in producing "Scared Straight!"

The Internet feed also allows viewers to compare unedited events to what is slicked up and packaged by the producers, thus providing a unique glimpse at just how real "reality TV" truly is. Last season, CBS was vilified by Internet viewers for misrepresenting events, staging "spontaneous" footage and advancing slanted story lines with manipulative editing.

So far, Shapiro has already delivered on his promise. Sex and nudity? Close enough. There have been plenty of naked games and casual nudity on the Internet feeds. Is there sex? Well, that depends on what your definition of "is" is. In prime time, you'll see blurred-out nudity and infrared "night vision" camera shots of bedroom groping that imply sex is about to take place--or just has.

Still, forget accusations that CBS has officially entered the pornography industry. Forget the alleged scripting of "spontaneous" events. Forget the portrayal of deliciously evil villains compiled by "story editors" culled from the soap opera mills.

What's really unfortunate is that the small prime-time television audience sees only sanitized, cartoonish villains, whose uncensored actions have horrified Internet viewers. In a week's time, the conflict has escalated to threats of violence, sexual harassment, homophobia and racism, as contestants Will, Mike and Justin (CBS does not publicize the contestants' last names) formed an alliance with the basest of frat-boy mentalities.

In a late-night conversation, the trio made plans to intimidate and control the competition. Autumn, a female they dismissed as fat and ugly, was not entirely useless to them. Mike stated that he would have sex with her to string her along. Justin bragged that he would sexually humiliate Krista, then spit in her face right before he voted her out. They discussed gaining the allegiance of an African American woman by falsely accusing another contestant of calling her the vilest of racial epithets.

Justin offered more variations of the epithet. Will planned to order a woman in their alliance to have sex with a male to get his vote, and Justin stated his intent to harass host Julie Chen, who is of Asian heritage, with sexual and racial taunts during the live shows.

These foreshadowed events then started happening, by coincidence or design, with the help of an alcohol binge (beer and wine courtesy of "Big Brother"). By the time the alcohol ran out, Justin "hooked up" with Krista, and Mike and Autumn climbed into bed. Justin joked with Krista, "Hang on, I'm going to slash your throat. Would you get mad if I killed you?" while holding a kitchen knife to her throat. Autumn sprang from Mike's bed, accusing him of exposing himself and asking for oral sex. Mike shouted throughout the house that she was lying to gain favors from the opposition.

One can only imagine what happened behind the scenes of the production in the aftermath, but a psychologist was called in to speak with Justin about his violent tendencies. He smashed a wine bottle during his drunken binge, and viewers witnessed him urinating onto a window concealing hidden cameras. Another contestant stated Justin should be removed, and he was ejected from the house several hours later.

Still, that doesn't completely alleviate Shapiro's problem. This level of conflict has passed the breaking point in a game that only gets more psychologically intense with time. "Big Brother 2" is only in its second week.

CBS could make history in any number of ways. The noble thing would be to cancel the production and apologize for letting it get dangerously out of hand. Or, the network could broadcast the horrible reality and portray the true events instead of a sanitized soap-opera version, which would at least be refreshing, groundbreaking and "real."

Arnold Shapiro, meanwhile, can either justify the status quo while gazing at his Oscar statuette or make history by watching and learning from his mistakes. Perhaps then he'll be scared straight.

*

Jeff Oswald, who led a group that paid to fly banners over the house encouraging the contestants to walk out during the first "Big Brother," is a freelance film and video producer-photographer based in Charlotte, N.C.

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