“Big Brother” typically begins with a group of beautiful but dull people in a house; evolves into a drama-filled guilty pleasure as they strategize, scheme, and backstab; and concludes with a finale where a jerk wins $500,000. That will probably be the case again Tuesday for the eighth-season finale, when either Dick Donato or his daughter Daniele will walk away with the show’s prize.
If Dick wins, he’ll be the latest in a string of winners who are, at best, not very nice, and at worst, contemptible human beings.
His daughter Daniele, a master at challenges, is less outwardly abrasive but has encouraged her dad’s ethically questionable behavior and used it to her advantage, even though she was once the target of it.
Almost without fail, “Big Brother” ends with unlikable people as its finalists. Like Dick and Daniele, they have their fans, but their behavior in the house has made plenty of viewers angry. There are examples from nearly every season, from people who say horrible things about one another to those who are delusional hypocrites to houseguests who are outwardly racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, or otherwise bigoted.
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As in life, reality TV often has villains, people we love to hate, but no show seems to consistently have as many unlikable people. Why are we invariably left with people like Dick?
Perhaps the show’s casting directors just gravitate toward the most outwardly obnoxious people, convinced they’ll make good television. The structure of “Big Brother” also seems to have something to do with it. There are no teams, and every week the power switches to a single person. Most significantly, in the show’s final weeks, the people who are nominated for eviction cannot vote, nor can the person who nominated them, leaving control in the hands of an increasingly smaller number of people.
On top of that, the cast members have the pressure of living in an isolated environment for about three months; “Survivor” lasts only 39 days, while cast members on shows like “The Real World” aren’t confined or isolated in the same way. The show’s ridiculous challenges may also play a role; the final challenge that determined the two finalists was a series of questions that had unknowable answers (the competitors were asked to try to predict answers given outside the house by evicted houseguests).
Online feeds revealed racism, anti-Semitism
The most obvious reason why “Big Brother” reaches its finale with unlikable people is that they are much more on display than cast members on any other show. Perhaps other reality series do have these sorts of people; viewers just never see it. Thanks to the 24/7 feeds from inside the “Big Brother” house and now YouTube, moments that never make it to air get discussed in message boards, on blogs, and in the media.
This season, while there’s been plenty to loathe on screen, the story has really been about what viewers haven’t seen on television. And those videos provide what may be the real answer as to why the jerks stick around: the producers work hard to make sure that happens, even if that means acting in ethically questionable ways themselves.
From accusations of cheating to bigotry, manipulation by the producers to ridiculously bad behavior, television viewers have been left with, at best, a distorted image of what’s happening inside the house , and Dick Donato is example number one.
In the show’s first few weeks, Dick was a dynamic television character: brash, outrageous, and rude, spitting out gobs of saliva into the back yard between cigarettes. His breathtakingly uncomfortable strategy was brutal honesty combined with confrontation; he’d talk with someone privately and then expose what they said publicly, and no one knew what to make of that.
Dick was by far the most interesting person in the house, and one of this season’s twists made him even more compelling: He entered the house and surprised his estranged 20-year-old daughter, Daniele, who hadn’t spoken to him in years. With Dick, the producers not only had the potential for conflict with other houseguests and his own daughter, but they also had the potential for significant reconciliation, a storyline they did everything in their power to play up and maintain.
When Dick crossed a line to abuse and a flagrant violation of rules, the producers did nothing besides perhaps warn him in private. His emotional abuse and sexist language may have been permissible, however horrifying it was, but the producers declined to act after he dumped a beverage on a fellow houseguest’s head during a fight — even though another houseguest was removed years ago for simply throwing furniture.
Instead, the producers highlighted the iced-tea assault and host Julie Chen chuckled about it while reading questions from her cue cards.
Most recently, Dick admitted to receiving information about the game from outside the house, as his son sent a letter that contained coded information. Again, the producers did nothing. That’s incomprehensible, especially considering that Jen, the central target of Dick’s abuse, received the show’s first-ever penalty vote for simply eating real food. A letter with information about the game, even if it didn’t actually have any effect, was deemed to be okay for Dick, just as assaulting Jen with a beverage was not problematic, either.
Dick wasn’t the only contestant who behaved badly and was given a pass by the producers. The cast spent time casually stereotyping ethnic groups; during one conversation, Daniele called Asians “stingy,” and Amber Siyavus, who’d previously spewed a string of anti-Semitic stereotypes, agreed. America’s Player Eric Stein and Amber made unacceptable comments suggesting incest between Dick and Daniele. And on and on.
None of this made it on TV, although it was broadcast live online. CBS even helped let the contestants off the hook. After journalists revealed that CBS wouldn’t let reporters ask evicted houseguests like Amber about their comments, the network decided to stop allowing the media to interview those who were evicted.
All of this had a curious, if unsurprising, effect: It generated interest in and conversation about the series, even if it was negative attention. The only time producers cut the live feeds from the house over content was when the houseguests accused the producers of cheating and manipulation, which just fuels conspiracy theories that they have something to hide.
Early on, there was speculation that the producers were campaigning during private Diary Room sessions to keep Eric, America’s Player, whose continued presence in the house generated web site page views and text message fees as viewers voted to tell him how to vote, and became invested in the show in a brand-new way.
All of the evidence indicates that executive producer Allison Grodner and her team have done everything in their power to not only end up with reunited father and daughter sitting side by side at the end, but to keep viewers interested and engaged, even if that means keeping them incensed.
Ratings for this season have been up over last year’s all-star season, and the show’s web site now receives about one-third of all network TV web site traffic. In other words, it worked.
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