The year 2000 was a simpler time in so many ways. In the pre-Sept. 11 world, cell phones still had buttons, only featured one game and were actually used to make calls; Netflix was still known as a DVD-by-mail rental company, and the idea that someone was listening to your every word seemed to be the subject of fiction because Alexa had yet to be invented.
But the latter certainly made for compelling television, as was evidenced when “Big Brother” launched July 5, 2000, on CBS. It was only seven months into the new millennium, but television was about to be changed forever.
The U.S. version of “Big Brother” was an unscripted competition series that saw 10 strangers living in a “house” on a soundstage in Los Angeles, competing for half a million dollars. With them were dozens of cameras and microphones so that everything the houseguests said and did, even in private with each other, could be broadcast to the audience — an idea that has admittedly taken on darker connotations as the years have gone by and government surveillance has become more prevalent.
“It was the beginning of ‘always on, always live’ and all of the social experiments and the producers playing God a little bit as well, holding this mirror up to a changing society,” Peter Salmon, chief creative officer, Endemol Shine Group, says of the early days of the franchise.
When the U.S. version launched, Salmon was at BBC One, and coincidentally he had premiered the social experiment series “Castaway 2000,” which tasked three dozen people with creating a community on a remote island, earlier in the year. But Salmon recalls seeing “Big Brother” and realizing they got some things right that he had gotten wrong.
“It was culturally cheeky and smart, savvy and political,” he says, noting that the American version had its own distinct identity and personality from the jump.
Based on the Dutch format that premiered just a year before, “Big Brother” was an idea not completely foreign to American viewers: its concept of putting people from all walks of life in a house together was similar to MTV’s “The Real World.” But its competition element upped the ante for reality TV, and it became a summer staple that kept CBS top of discussion during previously slow months; inspired a “Celebrity” spinoff series; an “After Dark” companion series; online 24/7 live feeds; and arguably also inspired a handful of similar programs through the years, from ABC’s short-lived “The Glass House” to the global “The Circle” franchise and Endemol’s own “The Island.”
“Survivor,” which had premiered on the Eye network just months earlier, had put its contestants through grueling physical competitions and dramatic transformations as they lived without proper food and shelter on an island. However, the first season of “Big Brother” relied more heavily on houseguests’ interpersonal drama to fill five nights of content, of what were cut-downs of daily in-house happenings. A sixth episode featured a live eviction (then called “banishment”), a structure the series still uses today.
“I had never even heard of anything on broadcast television trying something like that,” says executive producer Rich Meehan. “The size, the scope, the ambitiousness of it really stood out to me.”
That first season averaged the show’s highest live viewership to date, with just over 9 million total viewers. But at the time, it was being compared to “Survivor,” which launched with approximately 15.5 million total live viewers on premiere night alone. (“Survivor’s” finale, which aired in August 2000 while “Big Brother” was in the middle of its freshman run, became one of the highest-rated finales in history with almost 52 million total live viewers.)
“In the first season, everything was exactly what they had done in Holland — from the technology in the house to the tone, everything. And I think maybe that was the first time that they realized that what works in Europe doesn’t always necessarily translate to an American audience,” says executive producer Allison Grodner.
“I think one of the biggest issues was that the most interesting people — those who were creating the most story and drama — were getting voted out by America because they were seen as troublemakers. Maybe there was a morality issue,” she continues. “In the end you were left with people who weren’t making the most dynamic story.”
So in the second season, Grodner says they definitely “borrowed from ‘Survivor’ in terms of turning the game inside.” “Big Brother” houseguests needed to be more strategic and competitive, as the format was updated to include physical competitions in which they would win rewards, such as the chance to be the “head of household.” Additionally, the houseguests were given the power to evict each other, instead of viewers voting as they did in Season 1.
It also increased the number of houseguests, and continued to do so in the years since, and limited the amount of broadcast episodes it delivered per week. Through the years Endemol has also boasted using new technology to both capture footage and to push it out on new platforms, such as the OTT season in 2016. An ongoing goal, Salmon says, is to keep it feeling contemporary and environmentally conscious while also being cost-effective for the buyers.
New seasons of “Big Brother” have not come without controversy, though — sometimes centering on the lack of diversity in casting and sometimes on specific casting, be it a houseguest who uses hate speech or, in the case of the “Celebrity” edition, just a controversial public figure (see: Omarosa Manigault and Anthony Scaramucci). After Les Moonves left the network following sexual misconduct allegations in 2018, the show made more headlines for its host (and his wife) Julie Chen signing off the thrice-weekly show by using her full, married name — something she had never done previously. And most recently a producer came under fire for asking Black Season 21 houseguest Kemi Fakunle to behave in a more stereotypical way during diary room segments. Fakunle and fans of the show spoke out about how she was edited in the broadcast.
Yet this has not stopped the series from being a consistent performer, with the three most recent seasons averaging 5 million total live viewers. The franchise overall has also grown to include more than 50 territories.
“They want real people: They want people to come on and be genuine, and that’s the good, the bad, the ugly and occasionally the inspiring and marvelous,” Salmon says of the audience.
“Big Brother” launched at a time of change in U.S. television. Scripted genres were making strides (the third season finale of teen drama “Dawson’s Creek” aired the first primetime male same-sex kiss, for example) and powerful messages were being sent in late-night (David Letterman brought all of his doctors on stage with him when he returned to host his talk show after having heart surgery).
The start of the new millennium also delivered such new networks as Oxygen, VH1 Classic, Boomerang and SoapNet — not all of which are still standing.
Over the years, the emergence of Netflix as a key player in producing original content, in addition to the advent of other streaming platforms, have caused even more changes to the landscape. Yet, even as viewers’ attention is pulled in countless new directions with emerging streaming platforms, “Big Brother” remains a constant.
“The idea of cameras everywhere is fully accepted now,” Grodner says. “The idea of us putting our lives out there for everyone to see is accepted now. Was ‘Big Brother’ ahead of everything, in its way? I don’t know, but it did feel incredibly novel and like a huge risk, but now there’s a whole generation that doesn’t know anything else.”