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This 'Big Brother' Is CBS' Keeper

Television * The network's president defends show's content and says he's 'not displeased' with its ratings.

July 25, 2001|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Having ridden the "Survivor" wave to the top of last season's prime-time ratings, CBS received a taste of the downside of unscripted programming Tuesday, as network executives were put on the defensive by TV critics and reporters regarding the content of another staged, unscripted series, "Big Brother 2."

CBS' session comes near the end of the three-week summer edition of the semiannual Television Critics Assn. tour in Pasadena, which has been dominated by questions about the propriety of such programs, from "Big Brother" to NBC's summer tryouts "Spy TV" and "Fear Factor."

"Big Brother," which isolates a dozen people in a house and gradually eliminates them in pursuit of a $500,000 prize, generated headlines two weeks ago when contestant Justin Sebik--a Bayonne, N.J., bartender--was ejected from the game after holding a knife to the throat of fellow contestant Krista Stegall as the two kissed. Both had been drinking alcohol supplied by the producers.

Sebik, who defended himself in an interview Monday on Howard Stern's radio show (which, like CBS, is a Viacom asset), had previously been warned for physically intimidating other "house guests." He had also been arrested several times on assault charges, which CBS failed to discover during its background checks.

Embarrassing details have also surfaced about other contestants. The Web site http://thesmokinggun.com, for example, reported that Michael Carri (who now goes by the surname Malin) pleaded no contest in 1997 to three misdemeanor charges of forging ID cards to sneak onto the Warner Bros. lot and shoot unauthorized footage of the film "Batman and Robin." Carri was fined, sentenced to community service and ordered to stay away from the studio. A CBS spokesman said the network was aware of that information.

"We did do our homework," CBS Television President Leslie Moonves said Tuesday in regard to Sebik.

Moonves chose not to answer a hypothetical question as to whether the network would have canceled the program had the incident involving Sebik ended tragically. On more than one occasion he sought to steer the conversation away from "Big Brother 2," at one point asking, "Do we have any more 'Touched by an Angel' questions?"

Despite Sebik's ouster, the tone within the "Big Brother" house has remained contentious. Over the weekend, many viewing the live Internet feeds were appalled when contestant Shannon Dragoo scrubbed out the toilet with a fellow occupant's toothbrush.

Viewers of the Internet feeds--for which CBS is charging a subscription fee--have also been privy to racial slurs, talk of using sex as a weapon against rivals and part of a three-way sexual encounter before the producers cut away.

The three-time-a-week prime-time telecast has been more carefully edited. CBS opted not to present the moment when Sebik held the kitchen knife against Stegall. "We did not want to show that act on television," Moonves said.

Moonves repeatedly characterized "Big Brother 2" as "an experiment" and an alternative to playing reruns. "I'm tired of putting on 'Diagnosis Murder' reruns in the summer," he said.

The executive also noted that CBS is "not displeased with the ratings," with the show averaging about 7.4 million viewers per telecast--respectable by summer standards.

CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem said a relatively small portion of that audience--about 14,000 people by the most recent count--have subscribed to the Internet feeds. Some fans of the first edition were angry about being charged for the round-the-clock access, which provides the network an additional source of revenue.

Tellem called the behavior exhibited by Sebik "an unfortunate situation, but that's the risk you do run" in such series. She added that producers have supplied the contestants alcohol "as a reward" during parts of the show.

If the controversy surrounding "Big Brother" proved a source of irritation for CBS on Tuesday, the program has managed to draw attention away from a more valuable franchise, "Survivor"--also the subject of public-relations tumult in recent months, including a lawsuit filed by former contestant Stacey Stillman accusing producer Mark Burnett of manipulating the first show's outcome.

A deposition by another contestant, Dirk Been, appeared at least in part to support those allegations. While CBS and Burnett have steadfastly denied charges of manipulation, the producer also caused a flurry of discussion by admitting certain scenes were staged and re-shot.

Still, Moonves said the network "didn't change our policy one iota" regarding oversight of "Survivor," though reports have indicated the current version is receiving more on-site supervision from the network's standards-and-practices department.

Set in Africa, the third "Survivor" will premiere Oct. 11. and run through early January. A fourth edition will premiere in March to avoid competing with NBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics in February.

Moonves called unscripted programming "a force that's here to stay" and expressed no concern about the market being saturated by "Survivor" imitators, calling the original series "the Rolls-Royce of this genre."

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