Armed with the castaway megahit "Survivor" as a lead-in, "Big Brother" debuted Wednesday night to find that everyone was still watching. Overall, CBS' winner-take-all, sensory-deprivation version of "Real World" was a brick house, with a 13.9 Nielsen rating not much drop-off from the 15.1 garnered by "Survivor." But unlike its Gilliganesque lead-in, which consistently picks up viewers as it goes along, the hour-long opener of "Brother" slipped in viewership numbers over the hour. On Thursday night, the drift of eyeballs continued against a "Friends" rerun, of all things and netted an 8.2 rating.
That's still not bad. But clearly, viewers are discovering that the reality of 10 thrown-together housemates is a little too much like, well, reality to be riveting viewing five days a week.
Thursday night's episode was more of the setup we saw on Wednesday, featuring the mostly unremarkable roommates taking the tour of their "house" and "yard" (complete with the chickens they didn't eat on "Survivor") and making eyes at the ubiquitous hidden cameras. (It's actually all an elaborate set on the CBS lot, and a pretty nice one at that, in an IKEA sort of way). Oh yeah, and getting to know each other sitting around the table, swapping life stories, figuring out who sleeps where. They seem an earnest bunch, from the boring father of three to the perky-and-boring beauty queen to the boring Minnesota punk virgin. The possible exception: "Mega," the Samuel L. Jackson wannabe. But he's trying too hard to be the star. He's merely faintly annoying.
"Real World," at least, sends its housemates out and about. There is drunkenness, quickie sex, day jobs and other variables that help the show birth its soap-opera story lines. On "Big Brother," there isn't even a trip to the grocery store. It's live, real-time (though the shows are recaps of the day's action) footage of 10 folks crammed into a house with only each other for stimuli.
CBS execs, however, will take the current ratings gladly. And they're betting "Big Brother" is a growth show; with the close quarters, the eliminations and the viewer voting, some rats-in-a-tunnel friction is bound to pop up sooner or later, and with it the kind of unpredictable human drama that fascinates us so.
It'd better or we might become more interested in those poor chickens.