When a contestant on an unscripted reality show uncorks racist, homophobic and sexist comments, what should the network do?
If your answer is, edit the TV footage to remove the worst parts and issue a statement which barely acknowledges the problem, then you might qualify for work as a CBS executive.
That seems to be the network's response to its latest problem with prejudice on its unscripted show Big Brother; the competition which forces a bunch of attention-seeking contestants to live isolated in a studio set resembling a house for months.
Viewers of Big Brother's 24/7 online video feeds noted several of the show's white contestants have said seriously prejudiced things about non-white and gay castmembers: GinaMarie Zimmerman has said she has "(n-word) insurance," said an Asian contestant should serve them rice and said the show's black contestants are "tokens." Aaryn Gries said a gay contestant might win the audience vote because "people love the queers" and told the Asian contestant to "shut up and go make some rice." And David Girton said a bed's sheets might smell bad because a black contestant slept in them. (thanks to Andy Dehnart's RealityBlurred blog for a great summary of this nonsense.)
The petition website Change.org sent out emails alerting the press to a petition started by a Big Brother viewer asking CBS to kick Gries out of the house. She has already lost a contract with Zephyr Talent, a Texas-based modeling agency, which cited "overwhelming" public support for the decision on its Facebook page. According to TMZ.com, Zimmerman also lost her job as a pageant coordinator for East Coast USA Pageant, Inc.
Former contestant Ragan Fox posted an open letter on his blog, arguing to CBS that it should air the comments to show the atmosphere contestants of color and gay people face inside the house. "Why do historically marginalized players have the exclusive burden of narrating past acts of racial, ethnic, and sexual brutalization when we see this sort of discrimination enacted INSIDE THE HOUSE?" he wrote.
For an idea of how living in the Big Brother environment can change contestants, check out this feature I wrote about a visit to the show's set back in 2010.
Reports on the statements have drawn lots of coverage; enough to prompt a statement from CBS, which has not shown those comments on its television broadcast: "Big Brother is a reality show about watching a group of people who have no privacy 24/7 — and seeing every moment of their lives. At times, the Houseguests reveal prejudices and other beliefs that we do not condone. We certainly find the statements made by several of the Houseguests on the live Internet feed to be offensive. Any views or opinions expressed in personal commentary by a Houseguest appearing on Big Brother, either on any live feed from the House or during the broadcast, are those of the individual(s) speaking and do not represent the views or opinions of CBS or the producers of the program."
But this goes beyond worrying about a few prejudiced statements. As Andy has pointed out on his website and I noted in my book Race-Baiter, CBS uses Big Brother as a farm team to create personalities who might surface in other TV shows. In this way, Jeff Schroeder and Jordan Lloyd appeared on Big Brother's 11th's season and 13th season, along with competing on The Amazing Race and appearing in a CBS web series.
In my book, former contestant Chima Simone said the show worked to burnish the "All American" images of some contestants, clipping out moments of the worst racism while citing a desire to keep such offensive material off television (during Simone's season, a houseguest called Hispanics "beaners" in a comment clipped from the network's broadcast.
"I've been known for saying I have a better chance of surviving a Klan rally than surviving Big Brother," said Simone, who wound up apologizing herself for calling a Lebanese contestant a "terrorist" in a comment which was aired on the network. "This is Red State TV we were (creating)…That's the audience producer are trying to appeal to."
So the question remains: Will CBS forget what these houseguests did once the Big Brother season has ended? And will viewers let them?