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September 12, 2011  | by: Kyle Edwards

To be perfectly straightforward, I had no idea people still cared about Big Brother. Since its United States debut in 2000, the show has gone through countless transformations, shedding its voyeuristic origins in exchange for quirky games and veto ceremonies. With each new season being another gimmicky reinvention of its predecessor, I simply assumed enthusiasm had fizzled out.  Much to my surprise, an incomprehensible 8 million viewers still tune in three days a week to witness half-naked 30-somethings participate in what they consider “strategy.”

I’m deeply ashamed to admit that I, too, am one of these viewers. I can’t help myself. Who could resist when your favorite players just happen to stay on the show even after they’ve lost?

Let me clarify. Producers designed this season to pit new contestants against returning all-star duos like fan-favorites Jordan Lloyd and Jeff Schroeder (from season 11) and the train-wreck couple, Brendon Villegas and Rachel Reilly (from season 12). And while these established veterans have never been particularly talented, they always manage to squeeze by unharmed week after week.

In fact, about halfway into the season, Brendon was voted off. Gone. Finito. Then, out of nowhere, the show has a twist. America could vote one out of four evicted houseguests to return for a chance to compete their way back into the game. Brendon won America’s vote. Of course he did.

Julie Chen, host of Big Brother

Even later in the season, once Brendon and Jeff (as well as Daniele Donato, a season 8 alum) had been evicted, remaining veterans Jordan and Rachel were up for eviction at the same time; one was guaranteed to go home. Oh, but it’s never that easy. By tempting another player with “Pandora’s Box,” producers conjure up another chance to preserve their precious supply of likable contestants. The box unleashes the “Duo Twist” (who comes up with this?), meaning that Jordan and Rachel have a chance to not only ensure their safety for another week, but to eliminate their main competition in the process. Once again, in a grand display of deus ex machina, the audience is saved from disappointment – the likes of which our fragile egos couldn’t possibly handle.

But to anyone who thinks a rigged game show is surprising, it’s about time for a history lesson.

The year: 1956. Televisions were achieving status as the centerpiece of the American living room, and game shows had become the spectacular new phenomenon. Herb Stempel was pulling a Ken Jennings on the quiz show Twenty One, racking up a six-week winning spree of $69,500 in the process.

Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel

Stempel’s next question was a simple one, at least for him. But for some reason, he blows it. It’s all an act. What started out innocently enough as a genuinely intelligent contestant’s success quickly turned into one of the biggest hoaxes in TV history.

Stempel was coached by producer Dan Enright, who not only provided him with answers, but also with recommendations on how to dress, when to stroke his chin, and what to say in the audience. Stempel’s everyman image was a calculated move on Enright’s part in the hopes of winning over America’s hearts.

Stempel’s dive was only to make way for contestant Charles Van Doren, whose charisma and appearance made him the ideal replacement. Van Doren was actually the more famous of the two; he went on to win almost double Stempel’s prize in his 14 weeks on Twenty One and even grace the cover of Time magazine. (Here’s an interesting piece written by Van Doren himself.)

Enright later admitted that due to dismal ratings and sponsor disapproval, the show was rigged from the SECOND episode.

So if you choose to admit it or not, the show you’re watching – whether it’s Big Brother or Twenty One or Jeopardy or America’s Next Top Model – is a business.

There are tons of people online, venting their anger on message boards, blogs, and Youtube about how unjust Big Brother is. But these are the same people who ceaselessly talk about “HOHs,” “have-nots,” “backdooring” (that’s inappropriate) and whatever other unnecessary nomenclature is jammed into the show’s little universe. We relish in the quarrels between the annoying contestants and our “heroes.” That’s just good television.

The problem isn’t just with producers looking for ways to keep ratings high. It’s with all of us who expect to see truth on a TV screen.

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