On a recent episode of “For Real: The Story of Reality TV,” “Big Brother” host Julie Chen Moonves revealed who almost got her job and why the first season of the show failed so spectacularly.
Chen Moonves Revealed Meredith Vieira Was Offered the ‘Big Brother’ Job
On the episode, Chen recalled how she was a 29-year-old local news correspondent who all of a sudden found herself on a national stage.
“I was 29 years old, I had left local news and I got invited to CBS Network News. I was at the network for eight months and I got asked to host ‘Big Brother,’” recalled Chen Moonves. “And I said so why did you guys come to me? [They said] we needed a journalist. We offered it to Meredith Vieira first and she turned it down and I’m like, ‘So how low was I on the list?!”
But Chen Moonves took the job and the rest is history. The show has run 22 seasons with its 23rd on deck for summer 2021. It has had over 300 houseguests and been a solid summer performer for the network.
But Season 1 Was Kind of a Flop
On the same episode, Chen Moonves talked about how she has always thought “Big Brother” was the “most real” of the reality shows because of the lack of privacy. Back when they first started, she thought they were playing with fire with the concept of 24/7 coverage.
“I always felt ‘Big Brother’ was the most real because there’s no privacy. Twenty years ago, when we first came on the scene, I was convinced being filmed and recorded 24/7 was going to be so psychologically damaging. I said, ‘You know we’re going to hell, right?’” recalled Chen Moonves.
A professor of Media Studies from Monash University added that it’s interesting to give the term “Big Brother” a game show spin and a second Media Studies professor from the University of Minnesota added, “Reality TV made it seem that this isn’t necessarily sinister. It really helped to normalize the idea that we are all watched all of the time.”
But it wasn’t the constant surveillance that made season one a flop. It was because CBS left the votes in the hands of the viewers.
“We found out the hard way that America voted off the most interesting people,” said a “Big Brother” producer named Douglas Ross.
The viewers, who are not producers, didn’t understand that they were getting rid of the conflict and drama. They were just trying to reward the nice, quiet people. By the middle of the season, a lot of the most interesting characters had been eliminated.
We premiered to 22 million viewers on the first night. I think by the end of the season, we were down to about 5 million viewers. So that first season, especially in the shadow of “Survivor,” which had premiered a few weeks before us on the same network, “Big Brother” was considered kind of a flop.
[After changing the voting to the houseguests] became much more about strategy and game-playing and 20 years later, it’s going strong and stronger than ever.
It was a fascinating look at reality TV, especially because Brooke Karzen, head of unscripted TV at Warner Horizon Television, revealed the worst pitch she ever heard at the height of reality TV’s popularity.
“The worst pitch I ever heard for a reality show was ‘Big Brother’… with puppets,” said Karzen.
Big Brother U.S. returns in summer 2021 for its 23rd season. Big Brother Canada returned for its ninth season on March 3.
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