"It's an experiment," says everyone connected with the "reality" show, which was partially inspired by Web-style voyeurism. Translation: It didn't work that well.
The experiment, which ends Friday night with the naming of a $500,000 grand-prize winner, has improved CBS' summer ratings a little, particularly drawing younger viewers to a network unaccustomed to them. But compared to the blockbuster Survivor, CBS' other summer reality show, Big Brother is just a bust.
The network bought the format from Endemol Entertainment, a Dutch company that has produced the show in several countries. On the Fourth of July, 10 strangers moved into a fully wired house on the CBS lot in Studio City, Calif. From then until now, they've been filmed 24 hours a day.
If that real-people-under-surveillance format sounds a lot like The Real World, the big difference is that Big Brother airs five or six nights a week even as it's being shot, plus viewers can watch the people in the house around the clock on the Web. Editing has to be done on the fly, and that's when the show isn't airing live.
In comparison, The Real World (like Survivor) is a weekly show with no Web-cam component. It's also filmed completely in advance of its airing, so there's time to produce a cleanly edited program.
And on top of its harried production schedule, Big Brother has a convoluted, audience-participation, game-show structure.
Every other week, secret votes are taken among the houseguest-contestants to decide which of them will be "marked for banishment." The process, which was sped up this month, then puts the resulting nominees to a public vote, with viewers calling a 1-900 number to pick who gets booted.
This was supposed to lead to conflicts in the house, but after a couple of troublemakers were banished it rarely did. Instead, the participants began to think of themselves as a family. When the producers tried to create tension with divisive "challenges," the houseguests mocked them for it. A few weeks ago, they almost walked out in unison.
The producers also hoped that a sexual relationship would develop, a common occurrence everywhere else that the show has been made. But for whatever reason â€“ maybe our Puritan background â€“ the American cast wouldn't play ball. It didn't help that the audience voted out the friskiest one in the bunch â€“ an ex-stripper named Jean Jordan â€“ early on.
With the field now narrowed to three men in their 20s â€“ including University of Texas at Arlington student and wheelchair-basketball star Eddie McGee, a native of Long Island who had one of his legs amputated because of cancer â€“ viewers are deciding which one wins the $500,000.
There's also cash for second place ($100,000) and third ($50,000).
Josh Souza, a California engineering student, appears to be the favorite. The consensus "cute guy" has won everywhere that Big Brother has run, including the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.
The third finalist is Curtis Kin, a New York lawyer.
Critics have called the show boring, which it has been most of the time. But it and its ilk are not going away. With reality hot because of Survivor's success, and strikes by writers and actors likely in May, CBS may well decide to produce another Big Brother next summer.
The so-called "digital revolution" is also creating demand for cheap programming, with the potential for hundreds of channels. When and if TV and the Web finally merge, Big Brother may be the experiment that started it all.