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Big Brother’s Special Sauce


Part two in a series. Read part one here.

By Eric Hoyt

Formats are recipes. Jon Kroll, who executive produced “Big Brother” and co-executive produced “Amazing Race” in the United States, calls a format “a series of repeatable elements that were integral to a show’s success in one territory and that can be exported and developed into another territory.” These “repeatable elements” can range widely, encompassing everything from the show’s concept and rules to its characters and stories, as well as its visual design. Genres of formatted shows vary widely. Formats can be a scripted series, like the British comedy “The Office” or Colombian telenovela “Yo soy Betty, la Fea” (I am Betty, the Ugly), which were adapted and remade for American television. Formats can also be unscripted. Game shows like “Wheel of Fortune” were some of the earliest formats to be traded and emulated worldwide. Today, unscripted “reality television” dominates the global format trade in no small part because the genre is so amorphous, combining elements of the game show, the soap opera, the talk show and the documentary. Above all, reality TV tends to be cheap to make and easy to market. Formats exist to mitigate risk and make money. In an uncertain marketplace, they add a degree of predictability. If a format was a hit in Holland, it might be a hit in Germany, Turkey, New Zealand, or anywhere. By licensing a format, Kroll says that producers gain a sales tool to pitch networks. They can show what a completed program from its country of origin looks like and how the series performed where it first aired. Producers and networks sometimes license formats even when there is no legal obligation to do so. Television formats are not copyrightable, since copyright does not protect ideas, only the expression of ideas.

Although formats include behind-the scenes expertise that goes beyond the shell of the show, most courts around the world have ruled against plaintiffs in copyright cases regarding unscripted formats. Still, since litigation is costly and reputations are at stake, many networks license formats even with no legal imperative. And some formats are stricter than others. U.K.-based Celador Productions, for instance, requires licensees of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” to follow the format very closely. The questions change depending on culture, but the lighting, music, stage design and lifelines (ask the audience, 50-50, phone a friend) remain the same. You can watch it in a foreign hotel room or at the multiplex in “Slumdog Millionaire” (also co-produced by Celador). The language may not be recognizable, but the televisual style is the same.

More often, licensees of TV formats require some latitude in adaptation. The early licensees of “Big Brother” closely adhered to Endemol’s original. For the most part, the strategy worked. “Big Brother” turned into a sensational hit during its first seasons in Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, Poland and dozens of other nations. The original format appeared to be a universal blockbuster—until it reached the United States. When the first season of the American “Big Brother” generated mediocre ratings, Endemol and CBS realized it needed to be revamped for American sensibilities. Kroll was part of the second season production team that reshaped the show. “The idea was to make it much more summer fun, more like ‘Melrose Place’,” he says. CBS and the American production team also sought to “make the show more of a power struggle,” Kroll says, by changing the way housemates were evicted. While the original format had viewers vote on who they wanted evicted, the American team created a position called Head of Household, which one contestant wins each week. The Head of Household receives immunity from eviction for the week, gets to nominate two housemates to get kicked out, and spends the week sleeping in the house’s most luxurious suite—sometimes snuggled up alongside a “showmance” (an on-show romance) companion. CBS went even further, scaling “Big Brother” back from five episodes per week to three, giving the producers more time to edit the enormous pool of footage into dramatic, engaging story arcs. The American overhaul paid off and ratings went up. Now in its 12th season, “Big Brother” routinely wins the summer ratings for CBS.

When the Middle East Broadcasting Center [MBC] licensed “Big Brother,” both parties knew the format would require substantial adaptation to succeed among the 150 million Arabic speakers and many nations that MBC’s satellite reaches. In his outstanding new book “Reality Television and Arab Politics,” Marwan M. Kraidy analyzes the controversial pan-Arab “Big Brother”—retitled “al-Ra’is” (The Boss). Although MBC is Saudi-owned, the satellite network chose to shoot “The Boss” on a resort island belonging to its more socially permissive neighbor, Bahrain. MBC executives also decided to satellite broadcast the show on MBC 2, a slightly edgier satellite station than the family-oriented MBC 1. The network completely redesigned the “Big Brother” house to try to make it palatable to conservative Islamic audiences. The house in Bahrain featured gender-segregated sleeping areas, bathrooms, and prayer rooms. Men and women intermingled only in a shared living room. “We destroyed the format,” one MBC executive told Kraidy. “No touching, no kissing, no sex… two separate prayer rooms!” 



"Big Brother" in Bahrain, aka "The Boss"


Yet these makeovers proved insufficient. When “The Boss” debuted six years ago, the show aired for little more than a week. MBC abruptly pulled the plug amid public protests from groups who decried the show as “a threat to Islam.” As Kraidy points out, however, the show also had its defenders. “Many members of the Bahraini parliament rose in defense of the program,” writes Kraidy. These officials “argued that the program would boost tourism, promote foreign investment, and create new jobs, therefore contributing to national growth.” Kraidy demonstrates how these defenses, couched in economic rather than moralistic terms, are endemic pieces of the political landscapes of Bahrain and the surrounding Arab states. Yet the relationship between on-screen cultural representations and off-screen economic consequences is a crucial dynamic in reality television throughout the world.

Some territories remain out of reach no matter how much the format attempts to adapt. “Big Brother” has traveled to 42 countries, but it has never cracked one of the world’s most lucrative TV markets—Japan. Some Japanese producers believe that the back-stabbing, win-at-all costs spirit of “Big Brother” deviates too far from the nation’s collectivist culture. Other producers think that Japan has such a rich history in unscripted television—the nation created talent competitions and outrageous game shows decades before they reached primetime in the West—that any foreign format inevitably feels old hat.

Formats themselves can change. In 2001, Endemol introduced a new twist to Dutch “Big Brother.” The house split into two areas: rich and poor. Periodic competitions determined which group lived where. Several other nations quickly adopted the rich house/poor house innovation, but Argentina did not. As media scholars Silvio Waisbord and Sonia Jalfin observe, “This was not considered funny, fictional or exotic but rather offensive in the Argentine context” of massive poverty following the nation’s 1999 financial collapse. Additionally, “foreign versions of ‘Big Brother’ featured a scene at the beginning of the season in which participants were kidnapped by a gang of hooded people who proceeded to rip their clothes before dropping them off in a house where the show took place.” Local producers immediately rejected this piece of the format. “Given the history of dictatorships in our country,” said one local producer, “you cannot do that.” 

Next, the global obstacle course. Or why everyone loves to watch people fall in slow motion.  Read part one, "Keeping It Real."

Eric Hoyt is a Ph.D. candidate in the Critical Studies Division of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Photo courtesy of Luca Manini.

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