Big Brother Canada was renewed for season five today, having wrapped up its fourth season May 12, and the 18th season of Big Brother USA premieres on CBS on June 22, so it seems like a good time to compare the two and see how they stack up.
In the dozens of Big Brother shows around the world, viewers vote to evict each week as well as deciding who wins at the end. This usually makes for great entertainment as the cast members attempt to court favor with viewers, whether through personality, looks, pot-stirring, or drama.
And most of the time, the international shows’ production teams live up to the literary meaning of Big Brother by throwing in twists, activities, tasks, rewards, and punishments. The first American Big Brother followed this format but changed in the second season to having the cast vote among themselves who should get kicked out each week, as well as who wins the money at the end. This added key elements of strategy, secrecy, alliances, and backstabbing.
When BB Canada came along, they adopted the American format. Actually, Canada was kind of a hybrid because they threw in some fun random and secret tasks, rewards and punishments, gameplay twists, and viewer interaction along with the usual head of household/veto/eviction cycle. This format combination made BB Canada one of the best anywhere for its first two seasons when it aired on Slice, a smaller cable station.
The third season moved to Global, a bigger network that carries most CBS programs, and I think the show suffered overall. The changes were likely the result of more decision-makers and more money involved, quite possibly resulting in fewer risks as far as letting the show and “social experiment” progress organically.
But let’s break down the various components of each series and see how they compare with each other.
The live feeds, aka real reality TV
The 24/7 live feeds from inside the house are the number one thing that differentiates Big Brother from other shows, and the number one draw for me. This year BB18 feeds will begin June 23 at 10pm Pacific, after the second show airs in the West (get a free trial to see what really goes on in there)! The cast will have already been in the house for a week before the June 22 premiere, but it doesn’t take long to get up to speed and figure out what’s going on.
BB USA feeds are now bundled in CBS All Access with all CBS shows at $5.99 per month, compared to BB Canada feeds which have been free for all four seasons so far.
However, you do get what you pay for, and Canada tends to block the feeds more often and for far longer than USA, especially in recent seasons. In particular, while BB Canada tends to be a bit more liberal with booze deliveries, they often block those deliveries and parties from the feeds, and that’s obviously when things can get lively.
In addition, Canada feeds are sprinkled with ads. BB Canada also censors their cast somewhat, even for the feeds. They don’t bleep out words but they will warn their cast over the house loudspeakers when they’re getting too racy or explicit in their chatter.
While that might be a good idea in theory, and helpful for the cast members’ reputations outside the show, part of the draw of watching live feeds is catching the many unguarded moments when people say things they shouldn’t.
Big Brother live feeds are one of the most “real” things left in reality television, and other than understandable warnings for singing (due to royalties) or talking about people who didn’t sign releases to be talked about, they should be allowed to run “warts and all.”
If a cast member turns out to be racist, misogynistic, or homophobic, or decides to talk about something that should be kept quiet, that’s on casting and/or the person themselves. It often appears they didn’t bother reading their contract about being on camera 24/7.
Also, both USA and Canada are over-zealous about warning their casts to “stop talking about production,” meaning letting behind-the-scenes information slip out. Canada’s worse than USA about this, often stopping their show’s stars from talking about the show itself, but both countries’ Powers That Be seem to want feedsters to think the cast is in there on their own with no supervision or production involved at all.
Casting the hamsters
The make-or-break for all reality shows is its cast, and Big Brother is no exception. Robyn Kass supplies the faces for both BB USA and Canada, and while both series seem to have a “casting formula” they are a bit different.
Canada casts tend to have a bit more cultural diversity and fewer actor/model wannabe types, and both shows usually have several “recruits” who have never heard of the show plopped in among the fan applicants. Both series usually end up having one or more showmances as well as oil-and-water personality combinations that ensure fireworks.
A Canada stereotype is the politeness of its citizens and that comes through in Big Brother as well, as the inevitable personality clashes usually aren’t as volatile as they can be on BB USA. Civilized arguments might be preferable in real life but this is reality TV, and drama matters.
The Big Brother house/habitat
Since I refer to Big Brother casts as hamsters because watching them on live feeds is like watching hamsters in a cage, I call their house a habitat. It isn’t a true house anyway—both USA and Canada are filmed in television studios repurposed to look like a house, with new decor every season.
Canada’s designs win this category easily since they have a more spacious area and they tend to do over the top yet stylish designs and themes, and they’re carried throughout the house. For instance, BB Canada 3’s habitat was steampunk inspired, complete with gears and machinery pieces everywhere plus a Victoriana bedroom, and the most recent season had a casino theme including a huge flashing, ringing, light-up JACKPOT sign over the kitchen.
BB USA decor themes the last few seasons have been more cluttered than inspired. However, the American habitat does have a “backyard” that’s truly outdoors, albeit walled-in, to take advantage of the Southern California sun and warm evenings. Since BB Canada is filmed near Toronto in late winter/early spring, their “backyard” is actually indoors with the same artificial lighting and temperature as all the other rooms.
The television show: what makes the edit
The TV schedule for both USA and Canada is the same: three shows weekly, each with a colorful competition, stale-script ceremony, and highly edited Diary Room and taped conversation segments to flesh out factual and/or exaggerated-for-TV storylines.
In the past, Diary Room segments gave viewers insight into various players’ strategies and/or catty thoughts about their housemates, but for the last several years the Diary clips have been pretty much just competition descriptions or catchy soundbites.
While it’s probably not correct to say these bits are scripted, cast members are often caught complaining on feeds about being led in certain directions in their Diary sessions or having to tape multiple viewpoints about something. At the very least, viewers are rarely given any real insight into behavior or motivation anymore, and the air shows have suffered as a result.
Unfortunately, this Diary Room over-editing is one of the negative things Big Brother Canada picked up from USA when they launched their series.
Julie Chen and Arisa Cox, the respective hosts of BB USA and Canada eviction shows, are both professional and stylish in their own ways, and both do a fine—if repetitive—job with a virtually identical script every week. Arisa wins with feedsters, as she actively watches feeds and tweets with us many evenings.
However, there are two glaring differences between the shows, the main one being BB Canada eviction shows are not live. They have a studio audience, but they tape their eviction shows the afternoon of the day they air. This means the news of who’s evicted and who wins the next week’s head of household competition is usually known before the show airs.
In fact, I’ve gotten and posted those spoilers on Twitter for nearly every eviction show all four seasons, since far more of my followers want them than don’t. But that obviously removes most of the excitement and anticipation that makes Big Brother eviction shows what they are.
I understand that live television is a big deal but Arisa’s a very competent host and the Canadian crew knows what they’re doing, so it seems they could easily do their shows live, but for some reason they don’t.
So Canada loses big on that score, but they win with the other difference between the two countries’ air shows, and that’s a weekly companion talk show. The BB Canada “Side Show” isn’t necessarily as good as it could and should be, but it’s something fun that many other countries do with their Big Brothers, and something BB USA could easily do.
Incidentally, both countries run “After Dark” every night on cable (Pop in the USA and Slice in Canada), a 3-hour block taped earlier from the habitat the same night. It’s like a glimpse at the live feeds but with commercials and bleeped naughty words, and without the choice of which room to watch.
Update: Big Brother USA is adding a talk show for BB18. The “Big Brother After Show” will be hosted by Jeff Schroeder and will run every Friday beginning July 1, exclusively for All Access feeds subscribers.
The challenges and games
Both USA and Canada hold weekly food, veto, and head of household competitions, and as I said earlier, they’re usually colorful affairs that require physical or mental abilities, or a combination of both.
These are blocked from the feeds for both countries (although we know the results as soon as the feeds return), and they’re highly edited for the air shows.
BB USA’s competition producer Heath Luman has brought us some of the best competitions such OTEV and Tumbling Dice, and he does his best to keep the comps fresh year after year. But he has to work within the constraints of limited space, hot LA summer temperatures, and budget and safety issues.
BB Canada’s competition producer Trevor Boris has come up with some really fun and innovative comps (as well as voicing their occasional mascot comic Marsha the Moose), and I’m pleased to say he’ll be joining Heath’s team this year. Again, it’s up to the bosses which competitions actually make the show, but I think Trevor’s a fantastic addition to Big Brother USA.
The verdict: BB Canada vs BB USA
By the way, USA and Canada aren’t the only North American Big Brothers anymore. Telemundo premiered Gran Hermano US earlier this year, with a Spanish-speaking American cast. They used the international format of viewer voting, and they too had 24/7 live feeds which were free, at least for this first season.
So all in all, BB Canada’s made a very good effort and while they still make some questionable production decisions, it does deliver what Big Brother viewers want to see.
But Big Brother USA is the mack daddy of North American BBs with 17 seasons under its belt and the 18th about to begin.
Try the live feeds to see the real show and get the full story. This year feeds will be accessible by computer or mobile device, as well as Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, Android TV, Fire TV, and Xbox 360. And be sure to check my website for daily feeds reports and opinions, and follow me on Twitter for news, screencaps, and real-time feeds updates.
The recent all-seasons marathon on All Access reminded us that even less-than-stellar seasons had memorable characters and iconic moments, and I’m hoping Big Brother 18 has a lot of both.