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The Globe and Mail

CBS says ‘no’ to smarter, older contestants on reality TV shows

On the show Big Brother, housemates live together, are continuously monitored by TV cameras and try to avoid weekly evictions decided by the group.

CBS is the most watched network in the U.S. TV universe.

It aired 15 of top 20 shows watched last week. It airs eight out of the top 10 comedies on television. And it didn't get to be that successful by taking suggestions from TV critics. Especially on the matter of vulgar, sometimes grotesque, reality TV series.

The CBS show Big Brother caused national outrage last summer and brought embarrassment to CBS when three contestants (housemates live together, are continuously monitored by TV cameras and try to avoid weekly evictions decided by the group) made a succession of racist, bigoted comments. While the show encourages outrageous behaviour and the contestants hope to parlay notoriety into more than 15 minutes of fame, these particular comments crossed the vague line of acceptable dumb behaviour on reality TV.

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The issue didn't go away and when Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, came to meet TV critics here on Wednesday, she was asked multiple questions about the issue. "I was mortified by the comments Aaryn [Aaryn Gries, a 22-year-old college student and aspiring model] made," Tassler said. "It was this extraordinary confluence of events with the death of Trayvon Martin and the Paula Deen controversy that were dominating the air waves."

Gries, who spent a lot time on the show in a bikini, made homophobic and racist remarks galore, along with other obnoxious behaviour. Two other contestants also made racist comments.

While Tassler says she was "mortified" she defended Big Brother. "We have to remind ourselves, it is a social experiment. You are taking people from disparate walks of life and confining them in a house." She pointed out that the show dealt with the issue at the time. Host Julie Chen confronted Gries when the young woman left the house. Tassler said, "At the end of the day, we thought the producers handled it responsibly. Contestants go through a pretty aggressive process of screening."

But Tassler declined to promise that racist comments will never be heard again on Big Brother.

This led one TV critic to make a simple suggestion – search out "smarter or older contestants next season." Tassler didn't say no, but obviously didn't like the idea. "I think you always try to look for a disparate group, where you will have conflict, alliances will form. It's not a science. You go into every season hoping you make the right choices, but sometimes the way they behave in a one-on-one interview is very, very different, and that's why people watch the show."

That means "no" and it means "smarter or older" contestants are not the recipe for more viewers watching the show. That knowledge, one supposes, is how CBS got to be number one.

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