Why I envy 'Big Brother' live feed watchers
I was watching people sleep.
It was the summer of 2001, and I was working at a dot-com in Chicago. I had a browser window open to the live stream of cameras inside the "Big Brother" house. After a lackluster first season, the show came alive as its second season cast demonstrated the game's strategic and entertainment potential.
Still, I was watching people sleep--and it was amazing. There was potential there: at any moment, people could wake up and things could happen. And they did happen: fights, lies, strategy. It was fascinating, on and off TV.
For two or three months, contestants are locked inside a soundstage house, and people pay to watch. Having had that early experience of being mesmerized, I understand the appeal, so I've never judged those who spend two or three months watching the live feeds. It's so much time and energy and work. (If you don't believe me, here's a Big Brother live feed watcher explaining why she does what she does.)
But I also haven't envied them. That's changing.
There have been three hours broadcast on television so far, and they have been -- for the most part -- dreadfully boring.
The televised show follows a fairly rigid structure, and that makes sense. Most shows are edited and condensed into episodes and narratives after a lot of footage has been shot. "Big Brother's" editors have to work almost in real time, turning around episodes in a couple days.
Using a template to produce those episodes makes sense, but it is also dreadfully limiting. Perhaps the worst problem is that, because of the template, events that occur between the competitions on the weekend and Thursday's live eviction episode have to be compressed into 10, maybe 20 minutes on Thursday's show. So days and days go by, and we get a teeny fragment of that.
Again, the editors have tough work, and it's already difficult enough to compress hundreds of hours of footage into narrative episodes.But it's unmistakable that BB17's episodes have not matched the promise of the live feeds.
Live feed watchers report that, since Thursday, it's been non-stop action with multiple alliances and cross-alliances and fake alliances forming. They're super-excited about the show and this cast, talking it up.
Meanwhile, the TV show spent two days introducing the cast and the first insipid "twist," which was simply an excuse to cross-promote "The Amazing Race" and add two more cast members, a team from that CBS competition.
Later, the editors decided to start episode three with two guys talking about their annoying "bro code" and then went on to have the two new Heads of Household show off the rooms they sleep in. "Who wants to see my HOH room?" The answer to that question -- which is prompted by producers -- is "No one, ever." It's a room that has different decorations this year but is always the same, minus some personal photos and snacks that the HOH challenge winners receive as a perk. I don't want that; I want to experience the drama that the live feed watchers are seeing.
TV follows the same beats, year after year. And despite the show's popularity, it may be backfiring. This season, between the first half hour of episode one and the second half-hour of episode two, 1.5 million viewers fled. Things will pick up eventually, especially as the show's chronology catches up to real time, but many of us are already checking out.
It's time for CBS and the show's executive producers, Allison Grodner and Rich Meehan, to get the show out of that rut. Last year they refreshed and tightened elements of the game and the editing. It was a welcome change. But what the start to "Big Brother 17" makes clear is that it needs to go further. The show should dump its silly, playful filler and double-down on strategy. It can keep developing characters while doing that; they don't have to be separate. They also need to show us more behavior, good and bad, that affects our understanding of the houseguests, not whitewash everything or scapegoat individuals.
If "Big Brother" needs a model, it need only look at "Survivor." Again, "Big Brother" has its own unique challenges, including that it airs three episodes a week. But it should use those to its advantage. While we'll never see everything -- the feedsters will always have a different, special experience of their own -- they need to show us more of what the live feed watchers get to see.