'Big Brother' Gets Brutal

The words "Big Brother" used to connote the fearsome dictatorship at the heart of George Orwell's novel "1984." But in recent years, the words have applied instead to one of the smarmiest reality shows on TV, a show that imprisons a cast of young people in a house, hoping they'll passionately carp at and canoodle with each other - not just in America, but in Britain and Australia as well.

Now in its seventh year, the American version is just starting up again with an "all-star" edition, if you can call these Warholian characters "stars." They are to celebrity what scum is to pond. In a "greatest hits" premiere, CBS showed what it hopes to hype this season, with old footage of nine bleeped F-bombs in the first few minutes and two women dancing around in nothing but flower petals attached with peanut butter.

Right now, it's "Big Brother Australia" that's really capturing controversy, the jet fuel of raunch TV. Two men were kicked off the Australian show when one held a female contestant down, and the other rubbed his penis on her face.

The incident aired in the middle of the night on the live Internet feed, so it wasn't broadcast, and though replays showed you couldn't see much of the incident on screen, the cast knew what was happening and so did everyone watching the feed. It quickly stirred up a whole new debate on the island continent about the laughable commitments to self-regulation by the TV industry. Australian prime minister John Howard was blunt: "Well, here's a great opportunity for Channel Ten to do a bit of self-regulation and get this stupid program off the air." If only our president would be so outspoken about Tinseltown.

Predictably, Channel Ten snickered and pledged to stay with this cash cow, and American restaurant chains are among those underwriting the filth, including KFC and Pizza Hut. Channel Ten's news show made the incident its number-one story two nights in a row. Then the show's Australian host, Gretel Killeen, attacked the media for allegedly exaggerating the sexual harassment, saying their stories were ill-informed and perpetuated ignorance. She insisted the two men were "fantastic housemates, bringing joy, not only to their fellow housemates, but to Australia as a whole."

One editorial insisted Killeen wouldn't teach her own teenaged son and daughter that this kind of sexual assault was acceptable behavior, so why defend this abominable behavior? It's amazing how morals, and simple taste, fly out the window with the prospect of a hefty paycheck.

The pinned female house guest was interviewed by police, but her on-air response was pathetic. All she could do was weep and lament she had denied her housemates their most precious gift: their chance to watch themselves misbehave on TV. Local feminists came forward to press their usual argument that a female victim in this position often blames herself. But there's more here. There's also the tricky matter of the victim trying to preserve her own place on the TV show.

The Australian version of the FCC, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), quickly ruled that the show could not be sanctioned by the government since it appeared only on a webcast, not on television. But the Australian government was considering new legislation to expand government powers to less traditional methods of broadcasting. As new technologies create new opportunities for young people to be exposed to morally repugnant programs, the regulation/self-regulation debate will follow.

Believe it or not, this was apparently not the first time the Australian version of the show has featured a wayward male sex organ. Feminist writer Germaine Greer wrote in the Guardian: "In last year's series a housemate reportedly rubbed his naked penis on an uppity female housemate's naked back by way of pretending to give her a massage. This piece of nastiness went to air uncut, as this year's will not."

Don't think this appeal to lewd behavior isn't also employed in America, even if it hasn't stooped to this level....yet. CBS host Julie Chen lamented in one interview that "It took four seasons of the show" to develop televised sex between strangers, but "The moment that Amanda and Dave had sex in the 'Big Brother' house was one of the greatest moments for us on 'Big Brother.'"

TV moguls appear to be calculating just the right degree of outrageous behavior, figuring out how to scandalize the public by stepping over the line of acceptable behavior, but just enough to draw viewers and yet fend off regulators. When they fail and cross the line too far, they play the victim. But the "Big Brother" makers put young adults in a house who know that outrageous behavior is expected of them. There are no victims in the executive suites - just one pinned female and a disgusted audience.