Three weeks ago, CBS began preceding its 13-year-old reality competition Big Brother with a disclaimer warning that "viewer discretion is advised." For the first time this season, the three-times-a-week TV broadcast included some of the disturbing and bigoted things its cast members said on the live Internet feeds, which hoards of obsessive fans pay CBS to watch.
While some awful language was used casually, other more racist, homophobic, and/or misogynistic language was directed by contestants towards fellow players.
Unbelievable bile has continued to spew out of the mouths of the mostly young and mostly white Big Brother cast members since then, most recently from Amanda Zuckerman — who used racially charged language— and Spencer Clawson, who made what some characterized as a "facetious" and "tasteless" joke about masturbating to child pornography. Still, that subject matter is so serious and horrific that his employer publicly said that it had reported him to law enforcement officials.
Meanwhile, this week and last, the cast has voted out the season's only two black cast members, Howard and Candice, who happened to be nominated in the game by Aaryn Gries and GinaMarie Zimmerman, the very same women who made Howard and Candice the targets of their bigoted comments and bullying.
This is the reality of Big Brother 15.
The network's response
CBS did not respond to a request for a comment, but last week, CBS President and CEO Les Moonves, who happens to now be married to the show's host, Julie Chen, defended Big Brother and the network's behavior.
At the Television Critics Association press tour, Moonves said he found "some of the behavior absolutely appalling," but said it "is reflective of how certain people feel in America." He also said the network "handled it properly" and called the show "a social experiment."
Not insignificantly, the show is also a ratings winner. The network cited Big Brother in a Tuesday press release that noted, "CBS is only major network posting year-to-year summer growth driven by original summer programs."
Spencer's comments also led CBS to release nearly the exact same statement that it has previously released in response to things people have said and done on the show, insisting it does "not condone" the behavior.
Yet despite issuing a statement in 2011 that CBS did "not condone" then-cast member Jeff Schroeder's homophobic rant, he continues to do work for CBS. This season he's interviewing cast members once they're voted out, and he'll also appear on The Bold and the Beautiful later this month.
Meanwhile, Julie Chen announced on Thursday's live broadcast that the remaining cast members will all be part of a newly expanded jury and be sequestered, and thus she won't give the evicted houseguests "any news or feedback from the outside world," so none of them will learn of reaction to or consequences of their actions until the Sept. 18 finale.
When you just don't care
Spencer's comments led Season 4 winner Jun Song to stop watching this season, calling the cast "mostly human trash."
"I don't know why CBS just doesn't get all of them together and let them know this is not acceptable. Instead, they feed off of it," Song told BuzzFeed, noting how the attention fuels ratings, and that inaction over behavior means "it's being condoned." She said, "I'm just done. I've been a huge pro-CBS and BB-alum for a long time, but this season has just done it for me."
"I blame the network," Song said, noting that there's a lot "a big network, a huge conglomerate can do with an opportunity like this. [Executive producers] Allison [Grodner] and Rich [Meehan] and the team only have so much pull ultimately."
She thinks producers and the network need to "really get to these people and let them know what they're doing is unacceptable," and by that, she means the "off-color, really hurtful comments coming from places of deep-rooted anger and hate."
Big Brother's cast and producers do face something no other reality show does: nearly 24/7 surveillance and scrutiny. While producers routinely censor the live feeds for various reasons, the fees still provide more behind-the-scenes access than any other show, and there are many people who watch and often actually type every single thing the cast members say.
That makes it all the more baffling that cast members are saying the things they are.
"There does come a point in the house when you don't care: Whatever emotion you're feeling is just stronger than whatever cameras are around," Song said. She has written about and apologized for hurtful things she said about another cast member at one point when she was in the house.
The only real consequences this season's cast members have faced have been outside the house—Aaryn and GinaMarie very publicly lost jobs—but they don't yet know that.
All part of a game
If the network won't intervene, why don't cast members care enough to confront each other? "Not everyone has the capacity to confront a racist or a bully or someone who is otherwise inhumane in their behavior and their speech toward another human being," Song said. "If they saw that CBS is doing nothing to protect them, then they have to just protect themselves."
This behavior takes place in the context of a game that depends upon winning favor in the house. A Big Brother live feed watcher who monitors the house and writes and tweets as Hamsterwatch told BuzzFeed that "non-viewers may not understand the pressure cooker these people live in, and how any confrontation can easily escalate into gigantic fights, grudges, and getting evicted, losing their shot at the $500,000 winner's prize."
Hamsterwatch's writer—who watches the feeds all day, every day—said that the two back-to-back evictions of the only two black cast members is more likely "to be coincidental and more personal and game-related than racially motivated." For example, Aaryn's nomination of Howard was encouraged by Helen, an Asian-American cast member who felt betrayed by a lie Howard told her about an alliance in the game.
The three televised episodes have largely excluded racist, homophobic, and sexist comments from many of the cast members, instead focusing mostly on Aaryn.
"She doesn't seem to realize there's anything wrong with them or the way she said them. However, she is far from the only offender," Hamsterwatch said. "While Aaryn's obviously guilty of what she's been accused of, I do think she's been unfairly propped out in front as the poster girl taking the brunt for all of it by both CBS and the mainstream media."
Despite the attention and high-profile criticism from the media and others, Hamsterwatch said, "I don't think it had that much effect on the hardcore fans. The passion among people who follow the feeds and BB websites is intense and unique, even without any of that going on. If anything, it did make people more sensitive and rapid to jump on such things when they do happen, and it took a lot of the fun out of what's really just entertainment."
Still, Hamsterwatch suggested followers watch Frontline's "A Class Divided." "I figured it might encourage a few folks to be part of the solution in this situation rather than just continue screaming about the problem," she told Buzzfeed. "I also think they could have had the best Big Brother episode ever if the producers had brought Ms. Elliott or someone trained in the exercise into the house to run it with this cast, but it's not that kind of show."
Instead, it's the kind of show where its cast members are punished not for what they say or do to each other, but for things like failing in absurd, stupid, messy challenges. That punishment consists of things like wearing costumes, sleeping in airline seats, or being awakened all night long. While the cast is constantly admonished by producers, it is usually only for things like singing or for talking about behind-the-scenes details.
Despite giving up watching this season, Song thinks there's still hope for the show. "At its core, Big Brother is still a great reality show and program for the summer. I think that if people really want to do something, then they should; otherwise, it's just noise adding to the ratings."