CBS may have gotten more than it bargained for in its effort to add viewers and attention to its reality series Big Brother 2.
The moment for which critics of reality television have been waiting nearly happened last week on the set of the series, as one contestant put a knife to another's throat and in doing so placed the entire genre under new scrutiny. And while some may criticize the incident, the episode that aired after it occurred (and after much press) got the highest ratings the show has received this summer.
The question now is how long will advertisers and viewers stick with the hot TV genre that has spawned Survivor, Temptation Island
and top ratings at lower costs.
"I think if there is a threat of violence, that any advertiser is not going to want to be around that," says Tom DeCabia of media buyer Advanswers PHD. "CBS is going to have to tighten the screening process. We are going to have to watch it a bit closer now."
There was fear of reality from within the business, too. "When you put a camera on people, they behave differently, and the extremes to which people will go to to get noticed should be frightening to all of us," says new Turner Broadcasting System head Jamie Kellner. "Unfortunately, we'll probably have to see some terrible thing happen, at which point the advertisers and the press will reject this area of shock reality and it will fall out of favor."
That "terrible thing" almost occurred last Wednesday when 26-year-old contestant Justin Sebik pulled a knife out of a kitchen drawer and placed it under fellow contestant Krista Stegall's throat.
Sebik, who apparently had been drinking, was kissing the woman and suddenly pulled a knife and asked her, "Would you get mad if I killed you?" She laughed, and they kept kissing.
Two hours later, producers kicked Sebik, a New Jersey bartender, off the show. The incident took place after the show had aired, but subscribers saw it on Big Brother's Web site. Earlier on the series' Tuesday, July 10, episode, Justin got into an argument with a 46-year-old contestant over a missing pillow and received a warning from producers. "To ensure safety of all houseguests, intimidation, violence and even the threat of violence will not be tolerated," a CBS statement said.
Although CBS did not show the knife incident, last Thursday's episode, which included an interview with Sebik defending himself, managed to score the sequel's best ratings, although they were hardly spectacular. According to fast-national Nielsen numbers, Thursday's episode averaged 9.2 million viewers, a 6.2 rating/12 share in households and a 3.7/13 in adults 18-49. Still far from Survivor
CBS executives vowed to turn up the heat on Big Brother's
second effort, with numerous changes including a more "extroverted" cast. Now CBS has what it wanted and more. Besides Sebik, one contestant has asked for oral sex from another, housemates are often nude, and they're often seen drinking beer.
Next week, CBS executives may well get an earful from the media at the meetings of the Television Critics Association in Los Angeles.
"This is a show where they were doing, and will continue to do, as much as they can to spice it up" for better ratings, says Parents Television Council head Brent Bozell. "So one of these weird characters does a weird thing with a knife. Who's to be surprised?"