CBS CEO Moonves on Big Brother: “it’s what our show is”

CBS president and CEO Les Moonves said today that he found Big Brother cast members’ behavior “absolutely appalling, personally,” but thinks CBS has “handled it properly” and that “a social experiment” is “what our show is.” Moonves–who is married to the show’s host, Julie Chen–also confirmed that he still approves the cast for CBS’ reality shows.

Moonves–who was sitting in for CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler at the TV Critics’ summer press tour–started with the most important thing: “Because of Under the Dome, because of the ratings of Big Brother, we’re having a very good summer.” Meanwhile, TVGN, the CBS network that now airs After Dark, “has raised their ratings like 300 percent, but then again, when you start from a low base, it’s pretty easy to do that.”

In other words, the ratings are good, and the network is happy, so nothing will change. Essentially, Moonves echoed what Julie and the show’s executive producer have both previously said, and what the network’s official statements have been.

Asked specifically about the controversy, here’s what Moonves said:

“Big Brother, obviously, is a social experiment. It always was. This is its 15th iteration, 14 years. It was established as a social experiment. Clearly that’s what’s happening this year. I find some of the behavior absolutely appalling, personally. What you see there, I think it, unfortunately, is reflective of how certain people feel in America. It’s what our show is. I think we’ve handled it properly. Obviously, a lot of it makes us uncomfortable. I’ve watched every episode of the show. Obviously, my wife would kill me if I didn’t.

So, you know, I do know what’s going on there. We do discuss it quite a bit. I think we are handling it appropriately. We did not comment on some of the racial things being said until it really affected what was going on in the household. There was a lot of chatter about it on the Internet as well, and I think we’ve handled it the way we should have.”

That response is both predictable and disappointing. I agree that the cast’s behavior is reflective of how people behave (they’re real people, after all!), but the television show–as I’ve written so much my fingers are bloody–is not reflective of the reality inside the house. And that is not appropriate, especially in a season where viewers have power.

Moonves later joked, when asked about the conversations that he and his wife have about the show, “I’m not going to tell you what goes on in my home.”

Later, in a pretty unbelievable comparison, he brought up Survivor season one’s Richard Hatch and Rudy Boesch, and their friendship. Moonves was asked if he and those who cast his shows are “trying too hard to have too many out-there personalities,” and he said:

“There’s no such thing as trying too hard. Obviously, you don’t want wallflowers on reality shows. You’re going to take people that are interesting. Sometimes that leads to controversy. Absolutely. Look, I remember year one. We’ve talked about controversy. Richard Hatch, the first winner of Survivor, openly gay, and … into the island comes Rudy, the 70-year-old Marine, who wasn’t used to dealing with homosexuals at all. We said, ‘What an interesting thing.’ Now, these two guys became good friends on the island, and so they are social experiments. Trying too hard? I don’t think there’s any such thing.”

The obvious problem with this comparison, of course, was that Rudy wasn’t using gay slurs angrily or as part of verbal assaults against other houseguests. While he may not have been overly familiar or comfortable with gay people, he expressed no meaningful discomfort with Rich.

Rudy’s most famous line, “Me and Richard got to be pretty good friends–not in the homosexual way, that’s for sure,” doesn’t even come close to the things this cast of Big Brother has said. And it was preceded by Rudy saying, “The homosexual, he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.” Yes, Rudy didn’t frame his comments in the most sensitive or progressive way possible, but there is literally no comparison.

But Moonves is comfortable casting Aaryns and GinaMaries and Spencers and Hantzes, and he’s the one approving the casts. He confirmed he still has final say over the casting: “Unfortunately–and much to Nina’s and Peter Golden’s and [CBS reality executive] Jen Bresnan’s chagrin, they still bring in the tapes. I’m not involved from the earlier stages, but I sort of have the final look at who’s going in and choosing the right combination.”

Or the wrong combination, depending upon your perspective.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.