CBS boss “thrilled with” Survivor; nothing will ever change on Big Brother

CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler was asked yesterday during a press conference with TV critics about Survivor and Big Brother, and challenged repeatedly about how the casting and producing on the latter, which led to last summer’s parade of bigotry.

First, Tassler was asked why “with each subsequent season, the contestants on the show get a little to a lot dumber” and if the network will “be making any changes” or is “crippled by the fact that the ratings are still so good.” (I wish I was in the room instead of recovering from awful food poisoning so I could have given that critic a hug. Update: It was Vulture’s Joe Adalian who asked this and the follow-up question about smarter contestants below.) Her reply, according to the official transcript, started with her mentioning her boss’ comments last summer, and continued:

“I was mortified by the comments that Aaryn made. And we also have to look at last summer as this sort of confluence of events between what was going on with Trayvon Martin, obviously with Paula Deen. It was this extraordinary series of events that were dominating the news waves.

And what I can tell you is ‑‑ and this is the part that we have to remind ourselves, it is a social experiment. You are taking people from very disparate walks of life and confining them in a house for a finite period of time. I sit in those auditions and I sit in those interviews and you’re talking to people and you get one perspective on their personality. You ask very probing questions and you develop an opinion about that person. You do the requisite backgrounds checks on everybody the same way we’ve been doing it on all of our shows for years, obviously upgrading as more and more resources are available to us. But at the end of the day, we felt that the producers handled it responsibly, dealt with it as well as they could. So I think you have to recognize that, yes, this is that show and it is a social experiment and the contestants go through a pretty aggressive process of screening.”

First, it’s unbelievable how she blames it on Trayvon Martin and Paula Deen–and pathetic and offensive. If anything, what those stories did were start a national conversation into which the dimwits she cast were injected. After all, the national media has ignored Big Brother‘s racism and bigotry for many years. That’s kind of like saying, “Oh, you all wouldn’t have paid bigotry this any attention had you not already been talking about that kid who got killed.”

And please, I am so tired of the “social experiment” spin that it makes me want to puke, and I really don’t want to blow any more chunks this week or decade. You can have a social experiment with smart people, and you can even honestly and ethically edit a cast of morons. The show does neither.

Someone–amazingly–confronted her on the way Aaryn was actually scapegoated as the only person who made bigoted remarks, and asked about the show’s history “of concealing the bigotry of particularly the white contestants.” and “why the show didn’t offer a more even picture.” (Another person I want to hug. Update: That was NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.) Nina’s reply:

…”when conversation makes its way into story, that is when it makes it to air. I think that the producers handled it responsibly. It is about story. It is a social experiment. And people sort of take that into account when they’re watching Big Brother. But I did feel that the producers handled it well. And as I said before, it’s when those comments becomes story, that is when it makes it to air.”

Responsibly? This is responsible? This? Then she was asked another follow-up–damn! why did I have to be upstairs throwing up instead of hearing this–about the show’s future and whether she “might consider having smarter” contestants or “different kinds of contestants.” Her reply:

“I think you always try and look for a disparate group where you will get story, where you will have conflict, where you will create opportunity for alliances to be formed, and get the right people to generate story. It’s not a science. You know, you go into every season hoping you’re going to make the right choices, picking the right people. And ironically, you know, it’s how someone comes off in a one‑on‑one interview with us at the network and with the producers. Sometimes the way they behave in the context of that room is very, very different. So ‑‑ and that is indeed part of why people watch the show. Next question.”

Next question indeed! She was then asked much life was left in Survivor, and why the shows are so different and why the former doesn’t generate the same kind of “issues or controversies” and if “it just a differently cast show, better produced.” That was, of course, a more polite way of asking why Big Brother casts young, dumb bigots for its overly manipulated contest that looks like a shitpile, while Survivor looks like epic cinema and usually only exposes how produced it is through Jeff Probst’s stifling exposition.

In her response, which of course offered no criticism for the summer series that pulls in decent ratings, never mind that is hosted by her boss’ (Les Moonves) wife (Julie Chen), Tassler ended up side-stepping the question by describing the shows, and then ended up actually praising Survivor–and rather effusively. That bodes well for the show lasting well beyond its 30th season. Here was her full response:

“No, I think they’re actually very different shows. Big Brother has these contestants confined to a limited space for a finite period of time. Survivor is, again, a very different human experiment. You have people dealing with the elements, dealing with much harder fiscal challenges. You’re dealing with actually less ‑‑ people losing weight, dealing with the absence of food, and how that impacts their game play. So I think they’re very different shows.

And look, we’re just coming off of a terrific season of Survivor, and I think it reflects the quality of the producers. I mean, between Probst and Mark Burnett, these guys are always thinking out ahead. The Blood vs. Water cycle was very exciting. We had great response from the audience. And the one way they keep the show fresh and exciting is by tweaking the creative and coming up with a twist that really gets viewers excited. So right now, we’re thrilled with how the show is performing and going forward. Like I said, we’re excited about the next twists.”

Review: Married at First Sight

Marriage At First Sight

In an era of Tinder and Grindr, instant acceptance or dismissal of a potential partner, or instant sex with another body, Married at First Sight offers the thrill of watching strangers deal with the very basics of relationships.

Beyond the headline-grabbing premise, the series has turned out to be a stripped-down, authentic exploration of something very interesting. Read the full review.

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.