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When you think of summer, you think of hot weather, the beach, and vacationing. And when it comes to TV, summer brings the annual staple befitting the season: “Big Brother.”
The CBS reality competition has been part of Americana for more than two decades. To follow the wave of the then-No. 1 rated TV show “Survivor” in 2001, the series deviated from the oft-used international format (where the public decided who got evicted per week) in 2001 to having the houseguests themselves determine the eliminations. The result has been the long-lasting reality hit that spun-off similar successful “Big Brother” formats in Canada and Australia.
But over the past year, the reality TV world — much like our real world — has been rapidly evolving. The aim to include more people from diverse backgrounds in casting has been rocky, though, with the emergence of controversial issues of race, micro aggressions, discrimination and alienation, most notably on “The Bachelor” this year. Once-longtime host Chris Harrison defended eventual chosen suitor Rachael Kirkconnell after pictures of her attendance at a plantation wedding surfaced online. Kirkconnell, a Caucasian, was part of the franchise’s first-ever season to feature a Black Bachelor (Matt James). Harrison’s attack on “woke police” in his defense of her during a guest segment on the syndicated show “Extra” as well as his poorly-received subsequent interview on “Good Morning America” led to his dismissal.
“Big Brother” also encountered biases among its contestants, but its track record in the handling of these matters have long been dubious. During its 15th season in 2013, a confrontation from two Caucasian females using racial undertones against the lone Black girl did not result in any expulsions (although both Caucasians were soon fired from their respective jobs). Instead, mere displays of advisory statements alerting viewers of the contestants’ potential utterances of unpopular views were established.
The most recent U.S. civilian edition of “Big Brother” in 2019 employed a “Camp Comeback” twist that allowed the first four eliminated houseguests to remain residing inside the house until one of them won their way back into the game. An existent rift between the majority alliance called the Six Shooters — an all-Caucasian one — and the house’s minorities (all of whom were evicted pre-jury) was widened even more with the installed twist, as some of those majority alliance’s members took it as permission to alienate and ostracize further. Initially, the edited-for-CBS version of the house left out what fans following the day-to-day feeds were well aware of: the house’s toxic social atmosphere. But as the season devolved, it was an issue production could no longer ignore. It all came to a head on the live season finale when even its eventual winner Jackson (a Six Shooter member) was pressed by host Julie Chen Moonves about his biases.
Controversy on “Big Brother” was not isolated to the United States. Shortly prior to the pandemic shutting down production of its eighth season in Canada in 2020, one Caucasian male houseguest perceived rhetoric from a Black houseguest as threatening which led to producers expelling the Black player. Shortly thereafter, that same Caucasian male was also booted due to a “pattern of disturbing behavior.”
In late July 2020, three months following the abrupt end of “Big Brother Canada 8,” its host and producer Arisa Cox announced a new initiative: having a “minimum” of half the cast of future seasons (beginning with Season 9) being Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. It was a commitment that represented the forefront of the reality competition genre, as later last year, CBS in the U.S. set the same edict for all its competition shows. Although meant to take effect at the start of the 2021-22 TV season in our country, “Big Brother 23” will abide by the new cast requirements.
Will a more-diverse cast make for a better “Big Brother”?
While it remains to be seen this summer, this past spring’s “Big Brother Canada 9” may have served as a preview of what’s to come. Of its fourteen competing houseguests, eight of them were minorities, five of them LGBTQ+ and, for the first time ever on a North American civilian season of “Big Brother”, both its final two houseguests were Black. General sentiment from fans of Canada’s Big Brother seemed to be overwhelmingly positive for the house’s engaging personalities and their overall competitiveness.
The welcome feedback from “Big Brother Canada 9” could spell a good omen for the upcoming 23rd U.S. season, but the current state of television itself may stymie any potential uplift. The recent increased attention towards streaming and online gaming options has accelerated the double-digit yearly declines of young audiences watching over-the-air and cable TV.
The downward linear viewing trends are not solely domestic — even the aforementioned BBCAN9 experienced a notable drop. Compared to its seventh season from just two years prior, it was down more than 20 percent in total viewers: approximately 0.94 million this spring, versus 2019’s average of 1.19 million, according to Canada’s Numeris ratings system. Despite this, “Big Brother Canada” was renewed by Canada’s Global TV for a tenth season. Although extensive data has not been made widely available, its renewal was presumably based on its proficiency in attracting young demographics — the audiences most targeted by top advertisers. If the figures of CBS’ “Big Brother All-Stars 2” (also known as “Big Brother 22”) from last summer were any indication, it’s probable that “Big Brother Canada” remains among that country’s top programs of the key adults 18-49 crowd.
Unlike “Big Brother Canada 9”, “Big Brother All-Stars 2” was poorly received by the fan base at-large. The contrast between the first and second “All Stars” seasons is stark. The 2006 edition was a classic as it well represented the show’s first six seasons and added a heightened state of game play and strategy. The second “All Stars” season last year, however, reflected the many flaws and detractions the modern game has wrought. It’s one that incentivizes the groupthink philosophy — the concept of alpha-versus-alpha replaced by the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” way with alphas joining forces. Last summer lacked any alternating power shifts from one alliance to another (largely because the Committee alliance encompassed nearly all of the house’s best challenge performers), the boot order was all too predictable and the characters of most of its participants made the environment in the house woefully unappealing.
Yet, “Big Brother All-Stars 2” was, by far, the summer’s No. 1 TV show based on adults 18-49, according to Nielsen Media Research. It was roughly level from how “Big Brother 21” fared in the summer of 2019. Meanwhile, NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” (which far exceeded BB21 two years ago) declined nearly one-third in younger viewers within the same time frame and fell behind BB22. As for “AGT” thus far this summer, it is already off their pace nearly 15 percent from last summer.
Another notable reality show, “The Bachelorette” on ABC, is also experiencing year-to-year declines. Its season premiere was down by 27 percent from last fall, and down 33 percent from summer 2019. Its recent obstacles (as noted above in this article) along with an increasing amount of vaccinated Americans venturing outdoors and (perhaps) the limited appeal of the female designated as the current Bachelorette may all have contributed to its current standing. However, “The Bachelorette” is still among this summer’s leaders in the 18-49 demo.
Will CBS’ long-running summer staple return to capture the demo crown once again? Of course, last season was ample justification for some to turn off of “Big Brother” altogether. But it does not feel like summer until the arrival of “Big Brother” — the season seems synonymous with the show. Fervent fans (such as myself) are highly anticipating this new season, especially those that followed the most recent Canadian season. CBS executives and the American “Big Brother” staff had to have paid attention to BBCAN9; if not, they should have, to see that it is possible to produce a quality competitive game involving the types of people unique to “Big Brother” that is actually worthy of the motto “expect the unexpected.” And in the very least, prevent a repeat of the lackluster 2020 edition.
Practically everything on today’s television is trending down. “Big Brother 23” won’t be immune either. But it will be the summer’s top show in young viewers again. Its season premiere — the 90-minute live move-in event — will average 4.4 million viewers and an adults 18-49 rating of 1.40, based on live plus seven day data.
Several media observers and notable “Big Brother” aficionados also offered their predictions how many will watch the upcoming season’s premiere in the seven-day period of its initial telecast.
Marc Berman, Editor-in-Chief of Programming Insider
Viewers: 4.82 million, A18-49: 1.32
In today’s fractionalized environment, the norm is double-digit year-to-year audience erosion for any broadcast network series. While veteran “Big Brother” will be no exception, it should also still be enough to finish in the top 10 (all three weekly telecasts) in either total viewers or adults 18-49 — or both — all summer.
Bobby Goodsby, reality TV podcaster at Reality NSFW
6 million with adults 18-49 coming in at a 1.85 rating. Last year’s slump in numbers was because of the pushback of the season due to the coronavirus. We have seen a steep drop-off in viewership in recent years but, with shows returning at around their normal start date, there’s more of an inclination to watch the summer shows they once loved before the virus took over. It won’t be a dramatic increase but it’ll be enough to keep the show rolling through the summer.
Chantele Francis, Actress. Reality TV Junkie. Creator of Reality Realnesss on YouTube.
The ratings are going to go down from last year. We are optimistic that it will be a good season, with new casting, the live move-in, and these early game twists, but it’s still going to go down about 10%, to an estimated 5 million viewers, and 1.50 adults 18-49 rating.
Sasha Joseph, reality TV podcaster at Silent Podcasts
5.9 million. Coming off the heels of BBCAN, an all-newbie season, and the 50% diversity quota, fans are cautiously optimistic about the new season. While the numbers are not going to be groundbreaking, the audience is interested. Any news about the season is taking off (getting immediate notice) and the producers noticing problems gives me some hope. The cast reveal makes it or breaks it for the ratings.
Maggie Morgan, reality TV podcaster at Rob Has A Podcast
I predict a 5.8 million viewer rating. Due to an all new cast, it allows people to feel like they can start fresh.
Jason Jacobs, Northwest Iowa Campus Radio 103.9 (KUOO) deejay-sports announcer
4.5 million viewers and a 1.3 18-49 number for live plus seven. Big Brother will experience about the same level of decline as other network TV shows have this past year. It might do slightly better than that because its controversial issues are not as highly publicized as the Bachelor franchise, but America’s Got Talent has also experienced this level of decline. Therefore, Big Brother will be in the same boat.
Scott Nolte, Northwest Iowa Y100.1 FM (KUYY) deejay-sports announcer
5.9 million viewers, 1.89 adults 18-49 rating
Fans are ready for a more normal start to a season of Big Brother, but I see numbers in between the COVID summer and the regular summer of 2019.