While sharing elements with game shows, soap operas and daytime talk, this import from a Dutch production company isn't really like anything that's been on American TV before, so it's hard to judge by the old standards.
Unlike the more successful Survivor, which relies on the conventions of drama even as it breaks ground, Big Brother is a weirder hybrid. With airings six nights a week, it's shot and edited with little or no lead time, so there's no way the producers can make narrative sense out of it.
What the show most resembles isn't Candid Camera or The Real World, both influences. Instead, its main model is the "Web cam," that Internet phenomenon in which people set up cameras in their homes so strangers can watch them. On Web-cam "shows," dead air is as common as anything normally called entertaining.
In fact, if you want more dead air and more cooking, cleaning, bedtime tooth-brushing, mundane discussions, occasional arguments and close-ups of the house chickens in their backyard coops, you can go to www.bigbrother2000.com and watch, watch, watch. Four live feeds are available 24 hours a day.
"We've said from the beginning that it's an experiment," explains CBS spokesman Chris Ender. "All summer, we've been in uncharted territory."
The experiment, which ends during a live finale Friday, began July 4. Ten regular Joes and Janes entered a specially equipped house on the CBS lot in Studio City, Calif., surrounded by cameras, microphones, hot lights, brightly colored walls and IKEA furniture.
Ever since, they've been expected to live on TV and the Web, while also competing in challenges for grocery money and special privileges. Every other week, they decide which of them should be considered for "banishment." Viewers calling a 1-900 number then vote to evict one of the nominees.
After almost three months, the field is down to four houseguests, all in their 20s. After one more eviction Wednesday, the public picks a $500,000 winner Friday. Second place will be good for $100,000, with the third-place finisher taking home $50,000.
CBS, meanwhile, has won ratings while also sullying its Tiffany reputation in some eyes. While not a Survivor-size blockbuster, Big Brother has enlarged the network's summer audience, particularly among younger viewers that CBS has so much trouble attracting.
An average of 9.5 million people have watched each episode, with the Wednesday live show drawing 11 million to 12 million in recent weeks, less than half of the Survivor audience at its peak. Still, the show is so inexpensive to produce that CBS is considering a second run for next summer, when a writers' strike looms.
In the long term, Big Brother may point to the future, when hundreds of digital channels will be clamoring for cheap programming.
Debuting in Holland last fall, the show has since been produced in Germany, Spain, England and Italy. Versions are planned for Belgium, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, South Africa and Australia.
In Europe, sexual relationships have been the highlight. Despite flirtations, that hasn't happened in the United States. American prudishness is the easy explanation, but the houseguests have also expressed concerns about their integrity, seemingly more aware than their European counterparts about the power and reach of television.
At the same time, show-biz aspirations have been a hot topic of discussion, and fears about doing anything that would hurt future careers has made them cautious.
"It's a risk to go out there and be yourself and then have everybody hate you," says Brittany Petros, who was voted off Big Brother last month and now is talking to agents. "They don't want to offend anyone or do anything that's not P.C."
Before leaving the house, the colorful Brittany was part of a failed love triangle with ex-stripper Jean Jordan, the second person voted out, and house heartthrob Josh Souza, the favorite to win.
"I remember one moment between Josh and Jordan when they were lying in one of the beds, and Jordan said to Josh, 'My sex drive is driving me crazy right now,' " recalls executive producer Paul Romer. "If he had made a move at that moment....It's difficult to predict [what would have happened]."
What has been predictable is that critics would call Big Brother boring wherever it aired and whether or not houseguests provided R-rated scenes. Yet viewers watched, in many cases so they could love to hate the show.
"The problem with Big Brother is that when you take people and put them in an artificial situation, you're going to get artifice," says Ben Levin, a documentary-film professor at the University of North Texas in Denton. "You're going to get a program that's about what happens when you put people in that situation. It negates the art of the form."