The 89 Day Drama


July 10, 2000

Perhaps inspired by Survivor, or perhaps because there was nothing else on, you may have tuned into CBS's Big Brother.

The show is superficially interesting but seems to be no more than a clone of Survivor. Like Survivor, it features ten people isolated from the world, completing tasks and voting each other "off the island" (or out of the house, as it were).

But if you are watching CBS's Big Brother on television, you are missing the real show - the one which is broadcast 24 hours a day at the CBS's Big Brother website.

Now - just to get the confessions up front - I have been watching online. Not all day, of course, but for hours at a time, long enough to see that the online experience is very different from the television experience.

Perhaps it is an idea whose time has come, or perhaps my fascination reveals some deep character flaw in myself - after all, I remember being addicted to a similar 'reality' webcast in 1995-96, The Spot, a daily set of journal entries posted by cohabitants in a shared California house.

The Spot, sadly, turned out to be fictitious, an artifact of an advertising company, a $500,000 experiment in web broadcasting. It spawned a host of imitators, but ultimately, did not make money for its owners, probably only because it was too soon for a mass web audience.

And I confess as well to visiting JenniCam from time to time, the web's first example of live reality broadcasting. Jenni makes money by charging subscriptions for her live feeds - a price I have never been willing to pay - but there is a certain part of me which enjoys a glimpse into someone else's life.

And I am not alone, apparently. Consider the success of various 'reality' programs on network television - people flock to such shows as The People's Court, Cops, and even Blind Date.

The reality bug has hit the web, and PBS especially has spawned a series of interesting companion sites. One parallels their 1999 series The House, in which a family must live for three months as though it were 1899, and another accompanies Right Here, Right Now, a series of video diaries created by ordinary people describing events as they unfold.

But none of these have taken the concept to its next logical step - 24 hour live video of all aspects of the characters' lives, available for free on the World Wide Web, any day, any time.

I sit with my earphones on, typing this article, listening to the conversation and toggling back and forth to the video feed when something interesting happens. Which it does, with surprising frequency.

Shows like Big Brother are sometimes criticized because they are "contrived" - Big Brother rather less so than Survivor - but this is their strength, not their weakness. What happens in both shows is that a tension is established between the characters. We know someone is going to be voted out, we know that people's actions will have consequences, and so we are much more attentive to many of the smaller details of their interactions.

But watching the ten "houseguests" on television is very different from watching them on the internet.

Consider Karen, for example, the 43 year-old housewife, married for 23 years with four children: she comes across on the television show as unstable, neurotic, a prime candidate for first-out-of-the-house. But what we don't see is Karen up early every morning, tending the garden, watering the chickens, sweeping the floor, making coffee, teaching people how to bake bread. It is Karen who helped Jamie when she cut her foot on a loose carpet tack, Karen who befriends the shy but helpful Curtis, Karen who is the social glue bonding a number of the guests.

Or television viewers may have been put off by the overbearing shoot-from-the-hip attitude of William, a tall, strong, black youth counsellor and former basketball player. William appears to put out a lot of bluff - and that's what you see on television - but the video stream sees him helping out around the house, being pleasant with other houseguests, and acting almost as a father figure to the gang.

The camera likes Brittany, on the other hand, and yet online viewers rarely see her - she has spent most of the first six days sleeping, never helps with the chores, never interacts with the other houseguests, and is a prime candidate for removal. As William summarized Monday morning, "You have to wait until she wakes up, because if Brittany hasn't seen you do it, then you didn't do it. According to Brittany I have done nothing since I got here."

The television show is cut and edited to suit a television audience. It is spliced, edited, features 'true confessions' in the Red Room (which the online viewers do not see), and highlights the challenges and the tensions between the characters. It is like the six o'clock news, focussing on the disasters and murders, leaving out the nuances of day-to-day life.

The live webcast develops tension much more slowly. We learn a lot more about the characters, get a glimpse into their motivations and beliefs, see their softer, gentler sides - the side that responds to false friendship, the side that has financial problems and ambitions in life, the side that has limits - "I'd rather get my $500,000 somewhere else," says Karen as I type - "If I had to go around and kiss up to each person... I can't do that. I'm prostituting myself. If you don't like me you don't like my. I'm not going to do that for $500,000. Period. If I'm out of the house, I'm out of the house."

Big Brother may be criticized for being contrived and for being a copy-cat - and the television show is all of that. But the webcast is great entertainment if you have the patience to allow the plot to develop with Tolstoy-like -- and lifelike -- slowness.


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