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'Big Brother' tries again

The sequel to the lambasted reality show is making some changes in hopes of more sex, more conflict and more viewers.

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 5, 2001


The sequel to the lambasted reality show is making some changes in hopes of more sex, more conflict and more viewers.

Mild-mannered videographer Jeff Oswald made worldwide headlines last year as spokesman for Media Jammers, a loose collection of about 25 Internet buddies dedicated to disrupting CBS-TV's tribute to agoraphobia, Big Brother.

Among their tactics: flying banners over the show's site that read, "Big Brother is worse than you think . . . Get out now" and "It's bad . . . Take control . . . Question Julie Chen."

But ask if Big Brother 2 will get similar attention, and you get a quick answer.

It isn't worth it.

"I'm just not interested," says Oswald, who estimates Media Jammers spent about $2,000 trying to get someone to leave the "reality" program that stuck 10 people in a house under 24-hour camera observation for weeks, competing for a $500,000 prize.

"What was compelling last year was how badly Big Brother floundered . . . (and how) the producers' attempts to fix it floundered even more," he says. "Now it's just another also-ran reality show."

Indeed, that's the biggest obstacle facing CBS tonight as it revives a show that drowned in negative reviews and industry disdain.

How do you recapture the world's attention, when even the folks who loved to hate you don't care anymore?

CBS' chase for advertiser-friendly young viewers bored with the usual summer reruns explains why it's bringing back a Big Brother sequel.

From NBC's exploitive Fear Factor and Spy TV shows to CBS' mega-hit Survivor, reality TV programs -- that is, series placing non-actors in contrived situations to elicit an allegedly genuine emotional response -- have become a magnet for young eyeballs weary of conventional TV forms.

But it doesn't explain Julie Chen.

As host of last year's Big Brother edition, the Early Show news reader took hits for betraying her journalistic credentials, a clueless interview style, a wooden delivery and an inability to take control of the broadcast.

So why is she back for round two?

"I figured, if I'm not part of the (sequel) and it's a huge hit, I'll be sorry," says Chen, 31. "And a little bit was ego. I figured, if I turn it down, (critics) will say "They got rid of everything that didn't work from last year, and Julie's one of them.' "

Like many of those close to the show, Chen is hesitant to criticize last year's production team, Endemol Entertainment. The Dutch company, which has presented versions in Argentina, Holland, Britain, France, Spain, Germany and other European nations, still owns the rights to the show.

Still, Chen blames some of her worst gaffes from last year on producers who kept real controversy from the show. For example, when the show's first ejected contestant faced tabloid newspaper accounts on possible ties to the New Black Panther Party, Chen says Endemol Entertainment's producers told her not to talk about it on the show.

"(Producers said) the whole point of this show is not to make these people feel like losers but like heroes," says Chen, who wound up briefly touching on the issue at the end of William "Will Mega" Collins' interview. "We had to compromise between what I wanted to do, my bosses at CBS News and my own instincts. It was a tough day."

Enter Big Brother 2 executive producer Arnold Shapiro, who begins nearly every interview by saying he's "not going to say anything negative" about previous producers.

Shapiro, a 30-year TV veteran who produced CBS' Rescue 911 for eight years and the Scared Straight documentaries, knows the Hollywood game. He still has to consult Endemol on many issues -- including approval of the revamped logo -- so he's not picking any fights.

"I just don't think the potential of the show was realized last year," Shapiro says. "When you have more interesting people and more interesting content, hopefully you'll have a more interesting show." Shapiro, 60, says CBS asked him to help revive the franchise for American TV.

"Big Brother continues to be a Survivor-size success in every country it has aired in except the U.S.," he "I don't know why."

TV critics were eager to explain. The show, which featured 10 people isolated in a cobbled-together "house" of revamped trailers on a CBS studio lot, had a complicated formula of rules in which the "house guests" nominated two people every other week for expulsion, with the ejectee chosen by the public.

The drawbacks were endless: forced to produce six shows a week over 89 days, editors had no time to build coherent, interesting episodes; the show's European producers avoided real controversy and remained stymied by the cast's unwillingness to "hook up" romantically; the cast, visions of Survivor-level fame in their heads, never loosened up enough.

And, unlike in European editions, where some cast members had sex on camera and walked around in the nude, uptight American broadcasters would never air such racy material -- even if the cast could manage to loosen up.

Like a three-month-long car wreck, it kept getting worse. Contestants, united against the producers, threatened to walk out en masse; a few days later, each would refuse a $50,000 bribe to leave.

"Survivor set the bar really high . . . (with episodes) crafted like a dramatic TV show might be, . . . not like something thrown together in a garage, which is what Big Brother felt like," says Andy Dehnert, 23, creator/Web master of www.realityblurred.com, a comprehensive Web site on the reality TV phenomenon. "Maybe that makes it easier for (Big Brother) to improve, because so much of what they did was wrong."

Here's what Shapiro says he has changed:

There are now 12 house guests (ages 26 to 46, they include participants from Miami and Ponte Vedra Beach), who decide among themselves whom to eject, just as in Survivor.

The show will air three times a week for 12 weeks, giving time to edit each episode (the weekly ejection airs live on Thursdays).

Producers have chosen "uninhibited, competitive" house guests from a field of 3,500 applicants, three times the number who applied last year.

The house has been remodeled and renovated; gone is the chicken coop in the open courtyard (replaced by a basketball hoop) and the cheap, Ikea-style furniture. But there are 10 more cameras.

Relationship expert Dr. Drew Pinsky (MTV's Loveline) is gone from Thursday's live shows, along with the studio audience.

Two words: coed bedrooms. Which producers obviously hope will lead to two other words: more sex.

"With this group of people . . . we have our blurring machines on standby," says Shapiro, who can't help criticizing other lusty reality shows such as Chains of Love and Temptation Island, while overlooking Big Brother 2's transparent efforts to encourage romance. "We're going to have a great, real-life soap opera, which is our goal."

What hasn't changed: Chen returns as host, and fans can still watch the action at any time online (though AOL won't host the official Web site this year -- blame the AOL/Time Warner merger -- and CBS doesn't know the Web address yet).

It's a simple formula, amping up the show's competitive fire and sex content while sabotaging the bond among contestants that robbed producers of control last year. Already, during clips Chen aired on the Early Show on Friday, potential conflict looms between a gay house guest and a contestant who doesn't approve of homosexuals.

(Shapiro admits he can't do anything about the Internet video feed, which allows fans to see events in the house days before they are telecast, breaking the suspense.)

"It sounds like they were paying attention to everything I said (after my ejection). . . . I might dub these new rules the Mega rules," says "Will Mega" Collins, the first house guest ejected from last year's show and arguably the series' most combative, controversial figure.

"I understood, in order for this TV show to be worthwhile, we had to be entertaining," adds Collins, the former New Black Panther Party member who argued with fellow house guests over race issues, played pranks and deliberately seemed to sabotage challenge competitions. "It should have taken (producers) a week to realize that (after my expulsion) these people were becoming the Brady Bunch."

Eddie McGee, the 22-year-old wheelchair basketball star who eventually won Big Brother's $500,000 grand prize last year, expects Shapiro's changes to work, mostly because they'll help energize the cast.

"Without a doubt, I think we were boring . . . (mostly) because of lack of activity," he says, calling from the Toronto set of a movie he's filming with Clerks star Brian O'Halloran. "If you have the right dynamic of people and the right people who are controversial . . . that's scandalous, and people love that."

* * *

AT A GLANCE: Big Brother 2 makes its debut at 8 tonight with a live episode on WTSP-Ch. 10. Episodes will air at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays for 12 weeks.

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