'Big Brother 2' Gets Tangled in a Web of Viewer Protest

TIMES STAFF WRITER

CBS was hoping "Big Brother 2" would generate buzz among viewers, but the show has already proved a source of controversy, with a contestant ousted for threatening fellow "house guests" and loyal online watchers angered by the network's decision to charge for the previously gratis 24-hour Web feeds.

A contestant identified only as Justin, one of 12 people being monitored by cameras around the clock, was evicted Wednesday. Justin had hurled racial slurs, engaged in a near-altercation with another male occupant of the Studio City house and held a knife against the throat of a female contestant while they kissed. The producers said he had "crossed the line of tolerable and acceptable behavior."

The latter news, meanwhile, has sparked a wave of fury through a small but rabid contingent of fans who watched the first edition hours on end via the Internet and who since Sunday have had to pay between $10 and $40 to watch this season's footage. Petitions with several hundred signatures and angry messages to fire the "money-grabbing vice presidents of CBS" have been plastered across Internet message boards.

"People are up in arms," said a man who identifies himself only as Michael, operator of http://bigbrotheragain.com and the now-defunct saveeddie.com, which attracted 30,000 "Big Brother" watchers a week last year. "They feel that last time the Internet users were left in the dark while the producers focused on the TV production, and now they are being charged to watch."

"I can't tell you how much the Internet controlled the show last season," said George Boswell, one of the original "Big Brother" cast members, who believes attempts to revise the show have backfired. "But people are really upset about the Internet. People that were directly involved with the show and had an influence on it . . . they're disgusted with it."

Online criticism has quickly turned to the contestants and the live feeds themselves.

The new "house guests" are racier, louder and more prone to conflict. The contests are more competitive. And there is a tricky "Survivor"-esque "Head of the Household" who has immunity for one week and decides who to nominate for "banishment."

The changes came in an attempt to spice up the show and direct more of its Web audience to television, but reaction from the core of online fans is mixed at best.

While the TV show drew lackluster ratings last year, its 24-hour live Internet feeds attracted a far-reaching web of viewers who quickly developed dozens of Web sites, message boards and chat groups dedicated to dissecting the lives of the 10 contestants living on the CBS lot.

Compared with the first season's cast--which included a former U.N. diplomat and an MBA candidate at Yale--the new house guests seem less educated, according to Joan Giglione, a professor at Cal State Northridge who has monitored reaction to "Big Brother" for a class on unscripted television she plans to teach in the fall.

Descriptions of the house guests on message boards have varied from "nut cases" and "mindless sheep" to "trailer trash" and "red-necked Southerners." Eight of the 12 contestants are from the South.

"I think they just picked good-looking, controversial people that weren't afraid to walk around naked and have sex on television," Michael said. "I think that's what [CBS executives] think they missed last time."

The network's intention was to produce a show with "interesting, diverse and quirky" characters, according to a CBS spokesperson. "We changed some things to make the show more dramatic and suspenseful and, as with any reality TV show, one cast is going to be different from any other."

But noting that a racier cast may shift the show's fan base and attract younger viewers, Giglione said, "The [original cast members] were interesting, cultured and intelligent. For intellectuals on the Internet, the first year's crowd had a lot more to offer . . . and I think that the core Internet audience may be turned off."

Shortly after the live feeds began July 5, Web viewers expressed their disappointment and frustration that the footage was blocked from revealing juicy information before the television broadcasts. In a departure from what many consider the value of live, uncensored broadcast, the feeds are cut midstream when contestants begin discussing the nominees for banishment or when conversations get intimate.

"We all know that CBS edits what we see on the TV show, but we are now being told that they are going to edit the live feeds," said Bill Masella, moderator of a BigBrotherWatchers2 discussion group. "We won't get to see what really happened, which is the point of live feeds. Instead, we are going to see [producer Arnold] Shapiro's slant."

According to CBS, blacking out the live feeds is less a matter of censorship than dividing the broadcast into two parts. "It's a choice," the spokeswoman said. "People can subscribe and see an awful lot on the Web, or they can go to the show and see what was blocked out."

With a fee-for-view system, however, watchers are increasingly agitated that they are getting less for more. Others say CBS, by promising more sex and charging for it, has essentially put itself in the pornography business.

"I suppose people want to see everything possible they can get. And once I am paying for a product, I want the entire product," Michael said. "CBS is trying to limit the information that is getting out on the Web to force people to watch the television show, but my feeling is they would watch anyway."

People are also trying to find a cheaper deal online. Because the live feeds are carried by Real- Networks, Internet watchers were offered a $19.95 subscription for the duration of the show or a $9.95 monthly "GoldPass" package that included access to other RealNetworks content. In addition, some had to purchase an updated RealPlayer browser for $19.95, bringing the cost up to $40.

Complaints were only heightened when news surfaced online that RealNetworks had a special three-month offer for baseball fans at a third of the "Big Brother" cost and that CBS executives had set the higher price.

If the lively exchanges on message boards and detailed play-by-plays of the 24-hour feeds are any indication, CBS' moves may have sparked anger, but they have not yet hurt some viewers' desire to peer at the house guests.

"I watch it because it gives you an insight into human interaction," Masella said. "We are on the outside looking in, trying to relate to the house guests . . . saying, 'They're a lot like me' and watching how they work through problems."

Of the Internet charges, he added, "there are lots of people refusing to pay flat-out for the feeds, and I think, [CBS is] cutting off their noses to spite their face."

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"Big Brother 2" can be seen Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights at 8. The network provides parental guidance ratings for episodes on the day they are broadcast.

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