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Is Big Brother’s format broken?

Is Big Brother’s format broken?
Big Brother 22 nominees Kaysar Ridha and Janelle Pierzina during the Aug. 26, 2020, episode. (Image from Big Brother by CBS)

If I had to choose a single word to describe the American version of Big Brother’s format and game, it would be “imbalance.” The structure of the game—in addition to the isolation, claustrophobia, and paranoia—encourages imbalance by giving one person a tremendous amount of power, and then making it impossible for them to have power the next week.

In earlier seasons, the power swings were dramatic and wild and entertaining, ups and downs, but more recently, Big Brother has become like two kids on a teeter-totter who’ve figured out how to just sit perfectly still, legs dangling, in balance. And that has made me wonder if it’s time to change the format. I mean really change it—not just fold in some half-baked alleged “twist” that ends up giving even more power to one person before it’s discarded like a punishment leotard.

The American version of Big Brother has been on for 20 years and 23 seasons. That’s an accomplishment for any show, and especially for a strategic game. Not all reality formats are resilient enough to last that long, and to withstand change.

But the game that fans have come to know hasn’t always been the format. In season one, the entire house voted, and those who received the most votes became “marked for banishment”—and if there was a tie, it was more than two people. Then it was viewers’ turn: By calling a 900-number (!), viewers selected which one of those two were banished.

That season was a wreck, with bad editing choices and viewers working against their own best interest by voting out the interesting people.

So for season two, CBS brought in new producers: Arnold Shapiro (an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker who also produced Rescue 911, who’d stay on through season 7, when he left) and co-executive producer Allison Grodner (who remains as showrunner today).

The game they introduced was allowed for power to shift week to week. Instead of the entire group of contestants selecting nominees, just one person did: the new Head of Household. And instead of viewers voting, the cast voted, one by one.

What that did, was keep things entertaining by resetting the game each week. This constant inversion of power paid off frequently in those early seasons. A person who’d been up for eviction could be Head of Household the next week.

There’d be no Pagonging here, with a dominant alliance controlling everything and picking off a smaller alliance one by one, week to week, which happened on early seasons of Survivor.

Oh wait. While there are many, many alliances, that’s essentially what is happening on Big Brother now, and for many seasons now. And that’s a problem.

Is it time to change the format again? Is Big Brother broken—I mean, beyond all of its other problems? I think it definitely is—and has been for years.

By the way, I’m not asking this because Janelle was just evicted from BB22 house. In an all-star season, it’s inevitable that our favorite players or personalities are going to leave. And those who are more high-profile, like Janelle, are certainly obvious targets. (I only chose the image above because I thought Kaysar and Janelle’s bored expressions were great illustrations.)

Twists and controversies have masked a bigger problem

Ovi Kabir, David Alexander, Big Brother 21 live eviction episode
Ovi Kabir and David Alexander during Big Brother 21’s first live eviction episode. (Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS)

While Janelle’s exit isn’t the problem, when she exited, she identified one problem with this season, saying this in an exit interview:

“I played super old school Big Brother. I mean, people are ruthless as hell [in that era]. They’re just more aggressive. I’m used to more aggressive gameplay and more aggressive players in general. These houseguests are not aggressive in any way. Seriously. I would say one of the most calm, anti-aggressive casts I’ve ever worked with ever. Ever. I always called it a house full of introverts. It’s insane. Every single person likes to go off on their own, they don’t want to stir the pot, they don’t want to do anything. They are just lying in bed, literally.”

While this cast may be more introverted and quiet, the format actually rewards that behavior.

Almost everyone spends most of the week safe and comfortable, especially if they’re in an alliance that is connected to the head of household—and with large alliances, that’s very likely.

I think that’s the central problem: a format that doesn’t require everyone to feel in constant jeopardy, and doesn’t give them the ability to do much of anything, as the players can only vote for one of the two people who’ve been nominated.

Early on, the players did find their way into a quirk of this format, or a back door, if you will: “Backdooring” is when an HOH nominates pawns, i.e. people the HOH doesn’t want to be voted out, and then hope that one of them or the HOH wins the veto. They can then veto one nomination, and put someone else up for eviction—someone who has zero chance of getting immunity, because they didn’t play in the veto competition. Of course, many, many times, one of the pawns ends up being voted out instead, so that’s not a foolproof plan, and can result in drama either way.

But even with that possibility, the core problem for me is that there are two players at risk, and everyone else is safe to rest on their laurels for the majority of a week.

Compare that to Survivor, where every week, nearly all players are potential targets. The exceptions are those who win individual immunity, of course. Those who receive advantages (like hidden immunity idols) are also potentially safe—except when they should play their hidden immunity idol or advantage is a gamble. Time and time again, someone who could be safe on Survivor is voted out, immunity idol in their pocket.

Survivor’s format does have its own problems—for example, the prevalence of advantages and idols, which leads to moments like this one, or the way its format can perpetuate implicit biases—but it does make room for far more dramatic surprises, and for things to change even at the last moment.

Big Brother’s format is so stale that, come eviction night, there is rarely a surprise. The production schedule means that there are days between the veto and live eviction vote, and far too often, nothing happens in that span of time, because no one has any incentive to shake things up (except, of course, the two nominees).

By the Thursday episode, everyone knows who they’re going to vote for, and even host Julie Chen Moonves knows what to expect—so much so that derivation from that is incredibly surprising.

During the live vote on Thursday, Dani voted for Kaysar, and that threw Julie Chen Moonves so off her script she literally said she was off-script. “What?” she mouthed dramatically and silently to the camera. “All right, let me get back on script—I’m just a little bit, what is happening?!” Of course, nothing was happening except Dani throwing in a vote to make others question what was happening. But the predictable and expected still happened: Janelle was voted out.

That predictability is compounded by other decisions, such as the way the producers limit the number of players in the veto competition. That means there are fewer chances that a single individual could upset the HOH’s nominations.

The Head of Household is the thing that I think needs to go, or change dramatically, although since the house’s physical design is built around that part of the game—with a bedroom and ensuite bathroom for the HOH upstairs, lording over the house—I doubt it will. But giving one player that much power makes for a game that allows too many people to not actively play it.

As a TV show, Big Brother is also in a well-worn rut, from the extremely formulaic editing of the actual episodes to the arc of the game. The players are so familiar with the structure that they know when to expect double evictions and other annual occurrences.

The show is so stuck in its ways that it continues with the have-nots, which has added precisely nothing to either the show or the game in years. (I suppose the design of an uncomfortable bedroom adds a little bit of entertainment?)

What’s worked in Big Brother’s favor is that a lot of things distract from how broken that core, underlying game is. Whether it’s interpersonal conflict and drama, the frequent eruptions of racism and bigotry, or twists that go nowhere, they capture our attention and the players’ attention. When those things, especially the twists, go away, it’s the back half of the season, which is typically excruciatingly dull.

It’s also worth noting that giving one person so much power has repeatedly resulted in a pattern where minorities are targeted. All evictions so far in BB22 have been women, and no straight white man has been nominated yet. That may not be because of explicit racism or sexism (though we’ve certainly seen egregious, blatant racism, sexism, and homophobia on Big Brother, including from the producers), but when it happens again and again, season after season, it’s worth asking why.

Does asking the HOH to select two people encourage them to play to unconscious biases, or to choose people they or others perceive as outsiders? Does it actually make for a good game when one person controls so much of the direction of the game?

In 2016, I compiled more than 200 ideas from Big Brother fans about how to improve the show. One of those suggested a very simple hybrid of the original format and current format: just let the houseguests as a group make nominations and vote at the end of the week, with viewers breaking ties.

There are changes mentioned then that could help: smaller casts, a shorter season. But I think CBS is content sticking with at three-month season, three nights a week, because that’s what works for them.

Producing a narrative, episodic reality show with three episodes a week in near-real time is incredibly challenging, and I think that explains a lot of the formulaic choices made in the way things are done. In a 2014 interview, executive producer Allison Grodner repeatedly references “the stress and the exhaustion of putting on a show that demands so much.”

Grodner adds that “it’s new and exciting and different every year,” which, well, nope, not at all. That specific year, which was BB16, what was “new and exciting” was the “Battle of the Block,” which began each week with two people winning HOH, and each nominating two people. The nominees then battled in a competition. The winners earned immunity; the losers did not.

That didn’t change anything at all except to add a sort of prequel challenge (which replaced the have-nots challenge), so the same basic pattern played out.

Grodner also said that, “at its core, Big Brother works with HOH and the social experiment and them being in the bubble, but it’s nice to be able to play a little with the format to make sure that people are always on their toes.”

But the twists don’t ever actually play with the format, they just distract from it. And as Big Brother 22 and its all-star cast have proven, even twists layered over top of the game structure introduced in season two is not enough. This cast is not on their toes, they’re on their beds, sleeping their way through the season, metaphorically and literally.

It’s been a joy to have many of these players back—and a joy to have a cast that’s not just 20-somethings. But the all-stars have made it clear that, after 20 seasons, it’s time to actually rework the core game.

Recommended for you: Behind the scenes of the Big Brother house

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.


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