The American franchise of the reality show Big Brother ran into trouble last week after three participants on the current iteration of the show, Aaryn Gries, GinaMarie Zimmerman, and Spencer Clawson, were either fired or admonished by their employers after making racist and homophobic comments on the live feeds of the Big Brother house that are available to stream online 24 hours a day — but CBS chose not to include those incidents in its episode edits of the footage. After an uproar from dedicated viewers, CBS aired an episode this Sunday that included a substantial focus on Gries, Zimmerman, and Clawson’s remarks (as well as a seriously sticky-looking barbecue relay race).
At Reality Blurred Andy Denhart explains that “Actually showing a cast member’s ugly behavior and comments represents a major change. Three years ago, executive producer Allison Grodner told TV critics, ‘We really don’t want to put hateful things out there in our edits. And so for the most part, when this goes down, we keep that out of the show.’ And CBS has defended sanitizing hateful language, justifying their presentation of significantly distorted characterizations of the show’s cast…CBS and the producers should continue to show the people they cast for who they are (and, while they’re at it, stop hiring them to do more work).”
As Andy’s reporting makes clear, CBS’s past stance has been in an uneasy alliance with its reality show contestants. It’s wanted to present viewers with an unfiltered look at the lives of people living in the Big Brother house, until filtering becomes necessary to make sure audiences can still root for the full spectrum of participants, and to make sure that no one runs the risk of believing that because CBS airs a sentiment voiced by a show participant, the network endorses those offensive views.
But I wonder if part of the shift might be because the network recognizes that it’s easier to sell disgust than identification. Big Brother’s Wednesday episode, which aired after some of the contestants had been caught on live feeds making ugly remarks that didn’t make it into the content that was edited down for the actual broadcast, fell to a low in the ratings. Given that reality television’s always relied on the willingness of certain participants to take on villain roles, whether it’s flamboyant chefs on competition shows or scheming alliance underminers on shows like Survivor, allowing certain cast members to come off as evil not just within the context of the show, but because they exhibit genuinely anti-social attitudes could be a way of sharpening character development and returning genuine discussions about social norms that marked, for example, early seasons of The Real World back to reality television. It’s hard to tell how much the holiday and the lack of counter-programming affected the Sunday episode of Big Brother that aired some of those remarks uncensored, but the show did tick upwards in the ratings when it decided to acknowledge the public debate about the disparity between the live feeds and the episode edits.
And for the contestants themselves, there might actually be some small benefits for being shown as exactly as they are, bigotries and all. Most people who appear on non-competition reality television aren’t going to make full-time careers in entertainment, though there are a few slots on hosting gigs and reunion shows that are often filled by such veterans. But one of the ways to consolidate a fan base is to be controversial. And within the subset of controversy writ large is the ability to consolidate support on the grounds that you’ve been unfairly victimized by the forces of political correctness. Paula Deen’s business empire may have substantially crumbled in the past few weeks because of a lawsuit pending against her that alleges that she used bigoted language and created a discriminatory work environment. But she’ll survive, albeit as head of a diminished set of endeavors, because the lawsuit and the resulting media coverage have convinced some of her fans that Deen’s been unfairly condemned, and that their support is critical to keeping her in business, and refusing to let her detractors win. It’s not an attractive route to a career, but it’s a tactic of last resort to stay in business, or to stay in an industry where you’ve never had more than a toe-hold.