'Big Brother' Is Still Watching, Web Style


It's a fast-moving conversation: "SO YOU THINK JOSH AND JORDAN WILL HOOK UP?" . . . "Will is making a real ass of himself" . . . "Have you guys heard the LOUD SNORING in the guy's room???" . . . "Jordan is bi." . . . "WHY on Earth are eight white folks trying to RAP--they will look SO SILLY." . . . "I'm sure Karen's husband will be waiting with divorce papers when she gets out."

Consider yourself virtually trapped in a chat room on the "Big Brother" Web site . . . talking about housemates virtually trapped in a house built on a CBS studio lot.

This is the reality of TV-Web convergence--sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it's worth checking out.

CBS' "Big Brother" reality series, in which 10 people are isolated in a house and followed by cameras 24 hours a day, offers snippets of the type of voyeurism that has become popular on Web-cam sites ranging from the mundane to the risque.

The show, which airs Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., has a Web site that boosts the peeping quotient with four Web cams streaming live video and audio of the group 24/7--you can find it at http://www.bigbrother2000.com. Devotees of the show can also chat with other cyberfans, enter a contest and read "news" updates of the goings-on, bios of all the housemates and details about the abode.

In the coming days and weeks, log on and you'll be able to vote on which contestants should be booted (though only telephone votes will count) and take advantage of other interactive options. Although AOL, which co-produced the site with CBS/Endemol, would not release exact traffic figures, an AOL spokesperson said the number of people watching the Web cams on the site at peak times (for example, right after a show) has quadrupled since its Web launch last week.

Barely a week on the air, "Big Brother" has already spawned a number of fan and spoof sites, including Red Room (http://www.brad.nu/?yhnws), Big Brother Updates (http://www.bigbrotherupdates.com) and Little Sisters, available on ABC's Mr. Showbiz site (http://www.mrshowbiz.com).

It's the kind of ambitious TV-Web convergence that entertainment executives have been talking about for years. Still the "Big Brother" site has its limitations.

While the show's concept is a natural for the Web-cam extension, the technology behind live audio and video on the Internet is still not ready for prime time.

BigBrother2000.com users who have downloaded Real Player are stuck with a tiny, 2-by-2-inch viewing screen, as well as audio and video that seem slurred on 56K modem and even T1 connections. To chat you have to download the AOL Instant Messenger program. Once the download is complete, non-AOL members are directed to a general chat topics page, where the "Big Brother" topic is nowhere to be found--you'd expect to land right in a "Big Brother" chat room or an easy click away. More troubling for such an up-to-the-minute project is that the message board and poll links were disabled and news had not been updated for three days at press time.

Another caveat: Those searching for naughty fare promised by popular Web cams a la VoyeurDorm.com will be disappointed. As with its TV counterpart, the "Big Brother" site strives to avoid nudity, in keeping with the AOL and CBS terms of service. So, no potty shots allowed. But this is live programming, and although the staff monitors the video, profanity sneaks through on the live audio feeds. (It is beeped out on the TV show.)

According to the AOL spokesperson, the interactive features of the site are still in the roll-out phase. And in the Internet world, it is not unusual for many sites to be less than fully functional even a week after launch. Still, it is somewhat surprising that a large team at one of the biggest Web companies in the world faces the same types of technology issues as a start-up Internet company.

On the plus side, viewers intrigued by the "BB" gang's racial tensions (revealed in a fight between William and Brittany on a recent TV episode) and Jordan's musings about her sexual preferences can tune into the Web site night or day to observe as the group gropes to get along in an environment devoid of outside stimuli--no phones, TVs, radio, music or Internet.

After Tuesday night's TV show, for example, Web surfers could watch William and Cassandra trying to organize the housemates into performing a rap number as the eerie Big Brother voice chimed in with suggestions over the intercom ("You had it with rhythm"). Early Wednesday, while the others slept, Karen was up, dealing with a possible bladder infection.

So much for reality.


Michele Botwin can be reached at michele.botwin@latimes.com.

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