‘Brother’ bigger than ever

Show is a ratings success for CBS

CBS is hoping you won’t be able to escape the shadow of “Big Brother.”

Eye’s unscripted summer staple returns for its eighth season next month, with another dozen or so contestants set to lock themselves in a house for up to three months in order to make a run at a $500,000 prize. Despite the show’s age, the network has big plans to make “Brother” more omnipresent than ever.

“The show has always been kind of ubiquitous, even before it became cool to do that,” says CBS reality and new media programming guru Ghen Maynard. “This year, there are going to be some new things that make the show even more ubiquitous and interactive.”

Indeed, well before “multiplatform” became a mantra for the nets — think all those NBC on-air plugs for the “Heroes” online comicbook — “Brother” was pioneering the idea that TV and the Internet could feed off each other. Since launching in 2000 as an adaptation of Endemol’s international smash, viewers have been able to watch the activities of the show’s “houseguests” unfold in real time via a live, streaming feed that’s blasted around the world.

But now that just about every show on TV has some sort of web component, CBS knows it has to open many more windows to keep “Brother” as big as it can be.

The most striking innovation announced so far is a plan to simulcast three hours of the live Internet feed to CBS sister cabler Showtime 2 each night during the show’s roughly three-month run.

Eye is also expanding its cellphone offerings, giving auds a chance to keep track of the goings-on inside the house via text messages.

And, while “Brother” has from time to time let viewers make some key decisions, Grodner and Maynard hinted the show plans to significantly increase the play-along-at-home component.

“This year, there will be something die-hard fans will love,” Grodner hints. “It will give them the opportunity to participate even more than they have in the past.”

Grodner says the always-on aspect of “Brother” — “You can now take us to the beach with your cellphone,” she laughs — makes the show stand out from the summer reality glut.

“It’s not just about sitting down and watching television,” she says. “We’re a summer event that’s always with you. I don’t think any other show has that sort of reach.”

Ratings for “Brother” remain strong, with the show generally giving the Eye some of its best demo numbers of the summer. Its real value to CBS, however, is the younger, passionate and media-savvy base of viewers the show brings to the network.

“It’s about buzz,” Maynard says. “It takes a very loyal audience to watch a show three times a week. That’s a big deal.”

Such audience engagement, as Madison Avenue folks are fond of describing it, should be particularly important this summer, as the Eye tries to promote a fall sked marked by significant creative leaps., such as “Viva Laughlin” and “Moonlight.”

But while CBS and “Brother” exec producers Grodner and Rich Meehan are anxious to make the show as culturally virulent as possible, Maynard cautions that good storytelling remains at the heart of the “Brother” mission.

“It’s important to make sure you don’t betray the vision of the show,” he says. “If you do too many tricks and stunts, you betray that.”

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