Damning with faint praise

Less than enthusiastic, CBS' Moonves calls Big Brother a 'summer experiment'

Big Brother
is no Survivor. The two reality series debuted last summer on CBS within months of each other, but they have gone in different directions since then.

has become a national phenomenon and made millions for the network, while Big Brother
has generated a lot of negative press and a lot fewer dollars. Some are now questioning whether the latter will be back for a third season.

It's not that Big Brother
doesn't deliver respectable ratings. It does. In its first three weeks, the hour-long show (which airs three times a week) has averaged 7.3 million viewers, a 5.1 rating/10 share and a 3.1/11 in adults 18-49. The show is up from its Tuesday and Thursday runs last summer, slightly off on its Saturday-night edition.

The problem is the show's perceived tawdriness and a growing concern that something will go terribly wrong inside the Big Brother

Three weeks ago, one contestant put a knife to another's throat and was later revealed to have an extensive arrest record. Last week, a second housemate was found to have been arrested under a false name.

At the TV Critics Association meetings in Los Angeles last week, even before the second revelation of an arrest record, critics pounded CBS Television President Les Moonves about the show, suggesting that the network ought to give up.

Moonves, a former actor known for his coolness under fire, became visibly uncomfortable as he and CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem answered more than 20 questions on Big Brother. A number of times, Moonves deflected questions, saying, "It's going to be over in 10 weeks."

Giving the show less than his full endorsement, Moonves called it "a summer experiment."

"We're trying something," he said. "Are we conscious of everything going on the show? Absolutely. Were we concerned about what happened on the show? Absolutely."

About Justin Sebik, the contestant thrown out of the house for putting a knife to a female contestant's throat, Moonves said, "Clearly, we did not expect that result from Justin. We had a clean psychological profile. We had a clean criminal background check. … We didn't know he had antisocial behavior." After the incident, CBS learned that Sebik had been arrested several times in New Jersey.

After Moonves met with critics, a Web site revealed that contestant Michael Malin, as well, had a prior arrest record. He was arrested in Los Angeles in 1997 under a different name on three counts, including criminal trespassing and using false identification. A CBS spokesman said they knew of Malin's arrest prior to the debut of the show and allowed him to go on anyway.

So will the show be back? Moonves would say only that it is too early to make a decision.

David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, one of the show's producers, was hopeful. "CBS must be happy with the demos on the show, and it's certainly better than anything they had in there as a rerun."

He wouldn't rule out moving the show into broadcast syndication or cable but said it may be too expensive to produce for those outlets.