Somebody’s Watching Me 

9 September 2010

In 1999, Dutch producer John de Mol created a new television show based on a simple concept: What would happen if ten random strangers were placed in a house stripped of luxuries and wired with many cameras and microphones? What if these people had to live together for upwards of three months with absolutely no privacy? And what if every week, the viewers watching the program would vote to remove a player, until only one was left to claim a monetary prize?

He titled the show after the all-seeing, all-knowing ruler in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four: “Big Brother.” Now, a decade after Big Brother debuted, the show is an undeniable hit: there have been over 2,600 “housemates” playing the game in 38 different countries, and over two billion viewers watching (Osborne, 2007). What is fascinating to learn about the history of this program is how it has evolved from a ‘back to basics’ reality show into a fame and controversy machine, consistently in the headlines and often at the center of moral and even political debate.


In most countries that run Big Brother, there are three key elements that make the show work: the house, the housemates, and the viewers. The Big Brother House design changes every year, but the fundamentals remain—robotic cameras man every interior room, and cameramen station themselves inside a “camera corridor,” a galley that bisects the house and surrounds the perimeter of the backyard (Romer, 2000), ready to pick up any action the robots cannot cover. The house is peppered with microphones to hear every word that is said. The rules of the house are simple—there is no contact with the outside world, and housemates must follow the eponymous Big Brother’s instructions at all times. Housemates are chosen to be a cross-section of the country, varied backgrounds and eclectic personalities that may entertain or indeed infuriate one another and the viewing public. The viewers are the driving force behind Big Brother. Each week, the public is asked to call a premium-rate telephone number to vote out, or “banish,” one of two or more housemates that have been nominated by secret vote. Majority rules, and a houseguest is evicted, usually to a chorus of strong boos by a waiting outdoor audience.

The only country with a radically different Big Brother format is our own. Big Brother USA started in earnest on July 5, 2000, on the CBS network, with the same format described above. After a promising debut and loyal fan following, ratings soon declined. Some point the finger to the public banishing the most controversial housemates first, leading to an arguably benign and uninteresting bunch to follow the rest of the summer. Whatever the root cause, CBS wanted a return on their investment of a rather expensive format and custom-built house. They fired executive producer Paul Romer and hired the team of Arnold Shapiro and Allison Grodner, the pair who devised and ran Rescue 911 the previous decade. Shapiro and Grodner overhauled the entire game by eliminating the viewer input portion. Instead of housemates being evicted by public vote, housemates would have to vote themselves out, one by one. Ratings improved dramatically, and CBS essentially disavowed all references to the first season, preferring instead the new format, which one third-season housemate referred to as “Survivor with studio lighting” (Shapiro & Grodner, 2002). Since 2001, Big Brother USA has been an intense competition of power among the players of the game, which has brought progressively more viewers to the show.

The intensity of competition has, at times, caused contestants to snap, or otherwise act out in a way that threatens the safety of other houseguests. The most memorable and frightening of these actions came in the second season of the US series. Justin Sebik had previously been warned by producers to tone down the level of intimidation and threats he had been doling out. The final straw came for the producers during a night in the first week, when Justin and fellow player Krista were kissing in the kitchen (Shapiro & Grodner, 2001). Justin repeatedly placed first a kitchen knife, then the broad end of a carpet sweeper, to Krista’s throat, asking each time, “Would you get mad if I killed you?” Producers swiftly intervened and removed Justin from the house. Eight years later, they intervened once again when contestant Chima went on a temper tantrum, removing and tossing her microphone into the hot tub, and verbally accosting production staff’s requests for her to go to the Diary Room. The instability of players has not been relegated to the States; in the most recent series of the UK version, a contestant named Sree slit his wrists after watching his actions, and subsequent public ridicule, on television following his eviction (Addley, 2009).

Each year of Big Brother is different based on the people that sign themselves up to enter the house. More often than not, the first season of any country’s Big Brother will be a myriad of personalities, backgrounds and ethnicities. As the years wear on, the casting process may focus on certain “types” or daresay even some stereotypes. Past Big Brother housemates around the world have included identical twins, estranged father and daughter, closeted and very out homosexuals, and divorcees. No matter who goes in, their personalities shine through, and if the public talks about a housemate enough, odds are their fifteen minutes of fame will extend exponentially. US housemate Marcellas became known for his outlandish Diary Room entries and emotional outbursts. After his season ended, he later became host of a spinoff talk show, “House Calls,” and eventually was invited to a special “all-star” edition of Big Brother USA in 2006. The UK edition’s housemates seem to be met with the greatest amount of post-show fame: Anna Nolan, a former nun, became a television presenter for some time before becoming a columnist for the Irish Independent. Outlandish whiner and screamer Nikki Grahame has been in many ads on British television and pops up regularly on panel-based game shows.

Perhaps the biggest example of Big Brother as a launching pad for fame is that of Jade Goody. Jade was in the cast of the third season of the British version, and was an instant punchline due to her lack of knowledge about her own country, thinking that the British region of East Anglia was another country called “East Angular” (Edgar-Jones, 2002). She also struck up romances with several male housemates which resulted in massive amounts of debate and discussion among broadcaster Channel Four’s website. Though she didn’t win the show that year, Jade was immediately signed by an agent. In the span of six years, Jade had her own reality series, a fragrance, a book deal, and hundreds if not thousands of magazine articles written about her. Jade’s fame and public adulation almost came to an abrupt halt when she became embroiled in a bitter fight with Indian film star Shilpa Shetty when they both participated in a series of Celebrity Big Brother UK, which many say marked Jade forever as an ignorant racist. However, as an act of contrition and goodwill, she agreed to appear on the Indian version of Big Brother, Bigg Boss, hosted by none other than Shilpa Shetty. Things seemed to be smoothing over, but then a devastating diagnosis of cervical cancer—delivered to her on camera—sent Jade into a tailspin. Within six months of her diagnosis, Jade passed away, followed every step of the way by a camera crew.

Jade’s appearance on Bigg Boss was set up by her publicist in an attempt to help make over her image after her tumultuous time on Celebrity Big Brother 2007. Her irritation over Shilpa Shetty’s prim and proper behavior resulted in Jade making fun of Shetty behind her back with several other housemates. Jade’s mocking names for her—”Shilpa Poppadom,” among others, immediately registered complaints of racism from viewers nationwide. The furore increased when legislators, both in the UK and in India, called for Big Brother to be yanked off the air (Wright 2007). The public outcry became so tremendous that when Jade was ultimately evicted, the live eviction had no audience for the safety of everyone involved (Bell & McLean, 2009). Big Brother does expose housemates’ prejudices and thus, offers a forum for discussion and debate about a side of our society people often overlook. A similar outcry occurred in the US in 2008 when housemate Adam made an off-the-cuff remark about “retards” on the live feeds. Adam, at the time, worked for a charity for autistic children, and his comment led to the charity firing him, while he was still in the house. Adam eventually won that season of Big Brother, and left the house with some people demanding he donate a large portion of his $500,000 prize to the charity they felt he disrespected. Unfortunately, Adam was arrested in late 2009 when it was discovered he used most of his prize winnings to finance an oxycodone-smuggling ring. In April 2010 his fellow housemate Matt McDonald was also arrested for helping Adam with the drug smuggling, along with violence against his girlfriend and intimidating her to drop the charges.

When Big Brother finally advances to the annals of television history, it will be noted that the program was a somewhat skewed view of society. There will be debate for years to come over whether Big Brother is sensationalistic, trash TV. One thing, however, cannot be denied. The people hired on to play the game were not playing parts and were not acting—these were truly real people. They gave the public entertainment, at times, they angered the public, and at others, they gave the public pause to sit and assess its own behaviors and actions. When fans of the show speak of memorable moments, funny outbursts, or dramatic evictions, they should remember that without the real people that were cast on that show, those moments would never have come to pass.


  • Addley, Esther. (2009, July 30). Big brother contestant Sree slashes wrists, retrieved August 20, 2009
  • Bell, D., & McLean, D. (Executive Producers). (2009, June 5). Big brother: a decade in the headlines [Television broadcast]. London: E4 / Channel Four Television.
  • BBC News. (March 22, 2009). Obituary: Jade Goody retrieved August 31, 2009
  • CBS News. (July 5, 2000). Big Brother Debuts retrieved September 1, 2009
  • Edgar-Jones, Philip. (Executive Producer). (2009, June). Jade as seen on tv [Television broadcast]. London: E4 / Channel Four Television.
  • Grodner, A., & Shapiro, A. (Executive Producers). (2001, July). Big Brother 2 [Television broadcast]. Los Angeles: CBS-TV.
  • Grodner, A., & Shapiro, A. (Executive Producers). (2002, July). Big Brother 3 [Television broadcast]. Los Angeles: CBS-TV.
  • Osborne, Paul (Executive Producer). (2007, December 30). Big brother around the world [Television broadcast]. London: Channel Four Television.
  • Romer, Paul (Executive Producer). (2000, July 5). Big brother [Television series]. Los Angeles, California: CBS-TV.
  • Wright, David. (2007, January 19). Britain’s Big Brother bother. ABC News Online, retrieved August 20, 2009

Originally published by Chase McPherson in 2009 for the University of Phoenix

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