By Jared Chausow
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By Jon Campbell
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Not one to remain in the closet about my desires and behavior, I'll admit it: I've been watching Big Brother 3 (www.cbs.com/primetime/bigbrother3). Now in its third season, Big Brother puts 12 strangers in a house with 40 cameras, 62 microphones, and no contact with the outside world: no Internet access, no television, no radio, no newspapers, no telephone, not even any mail. Think Survivor without the physical hardship, The Real World without the ability to leave the hip loft, a desert island without the tropical surroundings. Their friendships, foibles (Gerry picks his teeth), and fixations (Marcellas with his Jill Scott CD) are taped 24 hours a day, and each week, someone is evicted from the house.
Big Brother got off to a rocky start its first year mostly because the cast was both boring and bored. With strong personalitiestwo couples even formedand contests regularly shifting the power dynamics, this year is far more watchable, sexy, even entertaining. It doesn't hurt that some of the contests require the houseguests to wear as little as possible; one time, all the women wore swimsuits, all the guys donned purple Speedos, and then, one by one, everyone was stuck in a wind machine and told to stuff as much cash into their panties as possible. Just a dollar short of G-String Divas.
I recently got an invitation to the set of this reality show-cum-science experiment, and I simply couldn't resist. In "the Compound" (a group of bungalows that lodge the offices of the production staff), there was a large TV distracting me in every room we enteredthe screen was split in four and the volume was turned up. In the main control room, dozens of people sat staring at a wall of images: a shot from every camera (most of which are remote controlled) in the house. No matter where we went, there they were, just like I had seen them on my own TV: Roddy, Danielle, Marcellas, Amy, Lisa, and Jason (Roddy would be evicted four days later).
Among the office bungalows is the Big Brother "house," which is actually a set with a homey facade. Surrounding the house and backyard is a walkway, separated by only a two-way mirror, where crew members can access the house; the four manned cameras are operated there, and outfitted in a black oversized jacket (made by another omnipresent force, the Gap), I got to see Big Brother peep-show style. I walked around the entire perimeter of the house, looked through the glass into every room. Danielle was in bed taking a nap. Marcellas was meditating in his room. The others were on the patio eating and talking.
Like my first glimpse of a live nude girl, the voyeuristic thrill was kicked up a hundred notches when I saw them on the other side of the glass. On TV, I never got the sense that they were locked in somewhere, but live and up close it was like going to the zoo and watching another species in a fabricated "natural" habitat. Look, they're washing the dishes! I just saw Roddy play footsie with Lisa under the table! The producers ultimately want drama, and part of what makes a good story is sexual tension, longing, chemistry, and courtship. They even cast a self-proclaimed male virgin and threw him to the wolves, um, I mean the women of the house. There's gotta be a bookie somewhere taking bets on whether he'll lose it by the end of the season. The virgin was all the sexual tension I had to hang on to since both couplesLisa and Eric, Chiara and Roddyhave seen members voted off the show.
It's difficult enough for two people to meet, acknowledge attraction to one another, and start a relationship, but imagine if 50,000 people (the number of Internet subscribers) were watching you do it 24 hours a day. While there's no amateur porno happening on the CBS Web site, the mating ritualsopen affection, romance, and rustling around under the covershave been a big draw.
Plus, unlike traditional peeping Toms, we the audience are watching strangers who know they're being watched. Like peep-show girls, they may not see who's behind the glass, but they know we're there. And that has to impact their behavior: Some act aloof, others stare you down, and some perform for you. As long as they put on a good show, we keep stuffing quarters into the slot (or in this case, advertising dollars). And the show's success says something we already know about the American viewing audience: We like to watch. Web cams, hidden cameras, surveillance videosthey are all forms of a desire to spy, to sneak a peek, to find out what really goes on when the neighbors draw the shades.