Before Big Brother 23 began last month, I filed a request with the Federal Communications Commission under the Freedom of Information Act for records relating to the CBS’s hit summer reality show.
I specifically asked for all “correspondence with the FCC regarding the CBS broadcast network television program Big Brother between June 2016 and September 2020, and also between June 2013 and September 2013.” That’s the last five years of shows, obviously not including this year. I also included 2013 because that’s when BB15 aired; it was the season with the most explicit racism and bigotry.
As a broadcast network, CBS is regulated by the FCC, because the airwaves it uses are owned by the American public. (Even though most of us now receive it via paid cable or streaming, CBS is still freely available with an antenna.) Considering Big Brother’s ignominious history. I was particularly curious what bothered viewers about what they were seeing, and if the FCC responded to any of their complaints.
The FCC’s representative told me in a letter that they “conducted a search of the databases containing consumer complaints in response to your requests,” which resulted in no complaints from 2013, but did result in the 20 that you can read below.
The FCC also told me that its Enforcement Bureau, which says it will “investigate and respond quickly to potential unlawful conduct,” reported back to the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau there were “no responsive records” in their files, meaning that the Enforcement Bureau itself did not find a reference to CBS and Big Brother during those dates.
The letter to me also included a reminder that “the existence of a complaint or comment filed against a particular carrier or business entity does not necessarily indicate any wrongdoing by any individuals or business entities named in the complaint or comment.” In other words, these may include unsubstantiated claims that are now part of the public record.
Of the 21 pages I received related to Big Brother, I decided to exclude one complaint. It was already heavily redacted by the FCC because it included private information, and also made claims about a contestant, in addition to personal information about the writer. The primary reason I excluded it is because the letter ended with “I didn’t see the show,” so it obviously had nothing to do with the actual content of the episodes, or the actions of producers or CBS.
The 20 letters are often fascinating, with some legitimate complaints and some bizarre comments. One person complained about “sexual content on [the] internet,” so I assume they contacted the FCC after their very first time using the Internet. Another person refers to Big Brother as “a family show,” for which they must have a very different definition than I do.
Only one mentions racism, with the letter-writer claiming that “CBS is actually setting up behavior that creates controversial behavior by housing guests from regions know to harbor prejudices.” There are several complaints about “bullying” during BB19, and others about voting for America’s Favorite Player.
Another complaint claims “the show is rigged,” while another suggests producers kept Tyler Crispen on BB20 long enough to cross-promote his appearance on another CBS competition, TKO.
It is particularly fascinating to me how some people appear aware that the FCC regulates content, but unaware of the actual parameters of that regulation.
For example, in 2016 and 2017, people several people complained about uncensored content on Big Brother After Dark. At the time, After Dark was on ViacomCBS’s Pop, a paid cable channel that is not regulated by the FCC. Pop’s predecessor, TVGN, did actually censor some Big Brother live feeds footage—but did so voluntarily.
In addition, After Dark was broadcast at midnight ET, a time at which broadcast networks can freely broadcast indecent or profane content.
As the FCC’s consumer guide on Obscene, Indecent and Profane Broadcasts notes, “Federal law prohibits obscene, indecent and profane content from being broadcast on the radio or TV.” The FCC notes that:
Broadcasting obscene content is prohibited by law at all times of the day. Indecent and profane content are prohibited on broadcast TV and radio between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.
Complaints filed with the FCC about Big Brother
Here are the 20 complaints the FCC sent to me in response to my FOIA request. All spelling and typing errors are original, and the metadata—the ticket number, subject line, date of the complaint, and the complainant’s location—was provided by the FCC.
Ticket: # 1133198 – Foul language abuse.
Date: 8/11/2016 12:19:26 PM
City/State/Zip: Chicago Heights, Illinois 60411
Hope this is the right place to email.Watched Big Brother after dark.Although it did say viewer discretion adviced,I feel its way to much.Tried emailing station that airs show and has gotten out of control.Last night, the individual named Paulie used fuck or fucking 387 times alone.In three hours.Seriously? And the shows caption on the bottom was f bombs are flying.Wow,they never told him to stop.VERY offensive!!!!!
Ticket: # 1173111 – Big Brother language
Date: 9/1/2016 4:21:26 PM
City/State/Zip: West Des Moines, Iowa 50265
Paul on Big Brother is a constant stream of the F___word on Both CBS and POP.
This is in addition to other four letter words he spews.
Ticket: # 1202741 – Decency on TV re BB18 on CBS
Date: 9/17/2016 12:56:18 PM
City/State/Zip: Youngstown, Ohio 44515
This season on BB18 on CBS there have been men who have been using vulgar words, descriptions of sex acts with women, and blatant degradation of women.
Children as well as adults watch this program. Where is decency? For the sake of children and also the adults who have been highly offended by thee actions I am wanting FCC to take action to stop this behavior.
If I remember correctly FCC fined re Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. I am demanding same for CBS.
Certainly these ‘reality’ programs can put a morality clause in contracts to keep these conversations appropriate for general viewing.
It is the duty of FCC to protect the public from such behavior, especially to general public in prime time.
Ticket: # 1825149 – Bullying on the Big Brother show, Aug 3 S19/Ep18 episode
Date: 8/3/2017 11:18:16 PM
City/State/Zip: Waunakee, Wisconsin 53597
How can a major network like CBS be unaware of the clear bullying that they are profiting on and promoting as entertainment in the S19/Ep18 (Aug 3 episode) of Big Brother. Paul was misusing his influence as a leader of weaker minds to bully others in the house making their lives a living hell. This sends a terrible message to our impressionable youth. This crosses a crystal clear line and is a misuse of public airwaves. CBS should have their FCC license suspending for profiting on this clear bullying.
Ticket: # 1825218 – CBS promoting bullying and harrassment
Date: 8/4/2017 2:27:51 AM
City/State/Zip: Richmond, California 94806
To Whom it May Concern,
CBS has severely disappointed me. The fact that CBS through its show Big Brother actively now endorses bullying and harassment is sickening. I am boycotting all CBS shows and starting a movement to boycott all of your shows. Every episode now shows the same three characters going out of there way to harass and bully other members of the game. It is a game, but CBS needs to draw the line on acceptable behavior. They have not and now promote it as sport. This needs to stop and CBS needs to severely punished. Please fine CBS to get them to stop promoting bullying and policing their content.
Ticket: # 1829831 – Harassment and Bullying inappropriately condoned on Big Brother
Date: 8/6/2017 1:07:26 AM
City/State/Zip: Palatine, Illinois 60067
I have been a huge fan of Big Brother for years and I am appalled that CBS and the producers of Big Brother are allowing and thus condoning the harassment and bullying of players in the show. There allowing this is showing the wrong message that it’s ok to harass and bully people. i do don’t think it’s appropriate behavior to condone by the network or its sponsors.
Ticket: # 1829985 – CBS condones bulling
Date: 8/6/2017 11:03:24 AM
City/State/Zip: New Port Richey, Florida 34654
The show Big Brother is setting a horrible example for young viewers, especially since it airs during prime time – 8 pm EDT.
The show encourages bulling, which is a very touchy subject. The show tells young viewers that it is OK to bully others, lie, be aggressive and don’t respect human nature.
If not pulled by the FCC, at least make CBS air this program after 10 pm.
Ticket: # 1833494 – Big Brother After Dark
Date: 8/8/2017 12:59:02 AM
City/State/Zip: Winfield, Alabama 35594
I wonder why the contestants on the Big Brother After Dark are allowed to drop the “f” word at Will. I realize it is shown live but a 3 second delay would at least allow them to cut those out
Ticket: # 1872201 – sexual content on internet
Date: 8/23/2017 3:11:05 AM
City/State/Zip: Onaway, Michigan 49765
I watch live feeds on the CBS live feeds every year. I have complained every year about the fact that the Production crew will not show the rest of the cast but only the cast that has sex. Day or night. The cameras in the Big Brother House have infra Red vision. So we are subjected to everything… It is quite disturbing and very disgusting that the production crew is that uncouth.. Please can you sanction or stop this from continuing ??
Ticket: # 1875712 – Obscene and offensive programming
Date: 8/23/2017 10:03:31 PM
City/State/Zip: Lancaster, South Carolina 29720
CBS. POP ,,, TV GUIDE CHANNEL 183
BIG BROTHER AFTER DARK IS THE MOST DISGUSTING PROGRAM I HAVE EVER SEEN SINCE THE FIRST TELEVISION WAS INVENTED !!
I watched a short time to see if maybe I was dreaming when I went to the TV Guide POP channel to see what programs were coming on. I HAVE NEVER BEEN SO SHOCKED !!!
Words like FUCK,, MOTHER FUCKER, ,, COLONIC CLEANSING, ,, SUCK MY ASS HOLE DRY ,,, etc,,,,,,,, It is constant ! A channel any child or teen has access to.
IF I AM SPEAKING TO THE WRONG DEPT, COULD YOU PLEASE FORWARD THIS TO THE RIGHT DEPT FOR ME. THIS SHOULD NOT BE ON PUBLIC TV
Ticket: # 1923330 – CBS Big Brother
Date: 9/14/2017 4:55:47 PM
City/State/Zip: Lancaster, California 93535
Company Complaining About: Time Warner
They stated on the show that voting was open for America’s Favorite Player. We go to vote and it wants us to sign up for all access. Every mis-leading. Then it isn’t America’s Favorite, it is all access favorite. The show is rigged this year any way but this is wrong.
Ticket: # 1923734 – CBS Big Brother vote for America’s Favorite Player
Date: 9/14/2017 7:25:40 PM
City/State/Zip: Lompoc, California 93436
CBS is advertising and allowing thousands of fans to vote on their website and not informing them their vote will not even count unless they purchase their All Access Pass first. They need to let us know we are wasting time and effort. They need to say only the rich americans opinions count because that is how it feels.
Ticket: # 1924037 – Deception
Date: 9/15/2017 1:18:40 AM
City/State/Zip: Bend, Oregon 97702
Company Complaining About: Dish Network
CBS claims you can vote for favorite Big Brother player. No mention anywhere that you have to pay.
Ticket: # 2629939 – Big Brother 20 on CBS
Date: 7/12/2018 1:17:57 AM
City/State/Zip: Pinellas Park, Florida 33782
Company Complaining About: Cbs Corporation
The television reality game show “Big Brother 20” should be investigated for rigging the game in favor of one of the contestants. The “houseguest” Tyler Crispen appeared in a promo for another CBS show “Kevin Hart’s TKO”. Tyler filmed this promo before he began playing “Big Brother”. To use a contestant in one game show to promote another, CBS needed to make sure that “Tyler” was indeed still playing Big Brother and considered popular by viewers. To this end, CBS named Tyler as the “top trender” (most popular) on Big Brother and gave him a reward ensuring he would be in the BB House for weeks. These unfair advantages had to all be pre-determined to make sure that Tyler was in a position to be a popular CBS personality in order to effectively promote “Kevin Hart’s TKO” when the time came for the promo to air. The fact that Tyler’s promo was filmed before he was even named a Big Brother contestant, shows that CBS is cheating other Big Brother contestants to promote Tyler. Please investigate.
Ticket: # 2694549 – Network Show, Big Brother using African Americans as hate and bullying targets
Date: 8/9/2018 8:45:01 AM
City/State/Zip: Pearland, Texas 77584
CBS has consistently staged a format under the guise of “reality TV” to allow 16 houseguests to polarize against the minority guests. There is little done to disguise the hate and bullying behavior that is allowed to play out.
CBS has a disclaimer that supposedly distances them from the actions of their houseguests. That should NOT be the case, particularly if they continue to allow it.
CBS is actually setting up behavior that creates controversial behavior by housing guests from regions know to harbor prejudices, along side the frequent target of that prejudice all in a small house.
They offer a behind the scenes format in the form of live feeds that shows the hate and bullying behavior play out in real time. A very abbreviated, edited version of the most outrageous of behaviors ever makes it to National TV.
The only behavior that is mitigated is that of potentially physical violence. ALL hurtful behavior, physical and mental, should receive the same attention.
CBS appears to care about ratings and pandering to a specific population that thrives off seeing hateful, bullying behavior!
It is past the time that some sort of sanctions get levied against this network for providing a platform for indecent, insensitive, bullying and harmful behavior to be presented to a National audience, most especially in prime time!
Ticket: # 2701297 – “Curb Stomping” description on family program
Date: 8/12/2018 9:00:53 PM
City/State/Zip: Latham, New York 12110
On the CBS program Big Brother, which is aired on CBS during prime time, one of the contestants on the show (who are presented as “real people”, not characters), provided a graphic description of “curb stomping”, where a person is murdered by forcing them to put their open mouth on a curbside, with their upper jaw resting on the curb, and crushing their skull with a boot.
My son is 7 years old and was watching this.
My family has been watching this program for several years, and this season, the program has consistently danced on the very edge of what’s acceptable language and imagery for a family program. However, this description was completely and utterly inappropriate for any type of prime time program.
Ticket: # 3376549 – Commericals on commerical network television
Date: 7/8/2019 2:59:24 PM
City/State/Zip: Bradenton, Florida 34208-1706
Commericals for shows, such as, Love Island and Big Brother seem inappropriate. While the family is watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, these commericals are aired. The visuals are very sexually oriented and immoral. The commerical content needs to be all age appropriate. The show content is not the issue. You can choose to watch or not watch. BUT the commericals get popped in while you are watching family appropriate shows.
Ticket: # 3391093 – Big brother
Date: 7/14/2019 8:45:04 PM
City/State/Zip: Celina, Ohio 45822
I have never heard such inappropriate language during a prime time program.
Ticket: # 3401461 – CBS Big Brother
Date: 7/18/2019 2:29:18 PM
City/State/Zip: Lebanon, Indiana 46052
Last night July 17, 2019 on CBS Big Brother towards the end of the show, Nicole was giving her interview and she actually said the f*** word, and it was not blocked out. I have it on my DVR, the word was clearly said. This is unacceptable and at the least and an apology should be given.
Ticket: # 4218595 – CBS Big Brother
Date: 9/10/2020 8:39:32 PM
City/State/Zip: Noblesville, Indiana 46060
Big Brother is allowing a convicted felon, Christmas Abbott, to verbally harass other houseguests and approach them in VERY physically threatening ways. Christmas has a history of violent offenses and I do not feel comfortable seeing other houseguests be put in danger. Please suspend the show until she is removed from the house. This is not acceptable.