July 24, 2000
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TV Show: Big Brother

'Brother' raises manipulation to a fine art
By LYNN ELBER


LOS ANGELES -- Just thinking about the amount of work that goes into "Big Brother" is exhausting.

Camera crews and film editors work around the clock to bring the housebound hi-jinks to television. The "Big Brother" contestants work each other in hopes of gaining the $500,000 prize and instant stardom.

CBS is working overtime to promote the show, hoping against the ratings evidence it will end up with another huge summer hit like "Survivor."

And TV viewers ... well, we're just getting worked over. The artifice of this so-called reality show isn't contained by the house; while the contestants are being manipulated by Big Brother, so is the audience, in ways big and small.

Consider last Thursday's show, when a breathless Julie Chen prepared to announce the name of the first person to be kicked out by fellow housemates and viewers. The answer, the reporter-cum-ringmaster told us, would be coming up in a few moments.

When we finally learned that the loser was Philadelphia youth counselor William Collins, more than 20 minutes had passed. A few moments? In a medium that sells commercial time in 30-second tidbits, that's a veritable lifetime.

Time was again an issue in the episode when Chen tried to interview Collins about reports that emerged during his "Big Brother" seclusion about a connection to the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

Collins, given just about the length of a commercial break to peruse news stories at the end of the show, was grudgingly cooperative: "Really, there's been no time for review. We need to get the record straight."

Aside from Chen's visible discomfort, CBS couldn't have been too concerned. Chen was only serving as a hawker for Bryant Gumbel's interview with Collins on "The Early Show" Monday; otherwise, the issue would have been raised with more than minutes to spare.

More control games were ahead. When Collins was informed he would be talking to Gumbel, his reaction seemed to be one of displeasure. When he started to explain, Chen cut him off.

The "Big Brother" contestants can diss each other for our viewing pleasure. They can insult their spouses. But appear to utter a word against a CBS celebrity and it's time to cover the audience's ears.

Collins was willing to keep his opinion of Gumbel to himself during a news conference Sunday -- "I've got to keep the hype going," he said -- but vented about "Big Brother" itself and what he sees as the show's dishonesty.

The young man, who has dubbed himself "Will Mega" and has a mega gift for gab, said viewers only got to see "the intense, analytical, debated, confrontational, argumentative, issue-pressing Mega."

The prayerful Mega, the poetic Mega, were left on the editing floor, he complained. Series executive producer Paul Romer, faced with compressing 24 hours of footage into 22 minutes, was unsympathetic.

"William's confrontations, in our opinion, were very interesting. ... Those were a lot of the highlights, so we edited them down and that was the show," Romer said.

Not the truth, maybe, but the show. And, let's face it, Collins himself seems to know as much about manipulation as a chiropractor with a knack for cracking backs.

He told reporters that he toyed with other contestants, playing pranks and mind games, because of a lack of "mental stimulus." But what he really cared about, he maintained, was using the show as a forum for discussing race in America. Collins is black; most of the "Big Brother" contestants are white.

"They need to understand that it's not necessarily important for black people to have to assimilate into the majority's culture," Collins said.

Turning a banal enterprise like "Big Brother" into a vehicle for social debate is a neat trick, and one worth applauding.

But when asked Sunday about his relationship with the new Black Panther Party and its leader Khalid Abdul Muhammad -- who was ousted from the Nation of Islam for calling Jews "bloodsuckers" -- Collins acted coy.

"I don't want the press to play Don King between me and brother minister (Muhammad)," he said, declining to give specifics about his political beliefs. So much for making something worthwhile out of his bully "Big Brother" pulpit.

Or maybe Collins was just "trying to keep the hype going," as he put it. If so, he could take lessons from series producer Romer.

Asked why the winning contestant gets only $500,000 -- relatively paltry, given that the "Survivor" winner gets $1 million and game-show brides expect multimillionaires -- Romer responded the show was "about the challenge and not about the money."

Oh, brother. And CBS executives are chortling about 30-second "Survivor" spots going for $600,000 because it's all about the accomplishment, not the cash.

Just what kind of pushovers do these guys think we are?




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