The clamor for more diverse television is one that’s continuously grown louder over the past few years. Reality television is an oft–forgotten part of the discussion—but in many ways, it’s actually the most important.
Reality TV is a microcosm of our society, in that there are no scripts or heavy–handed meddling (hopefully). Every competitive reality television show pits participants against each other, whether it’s fighting to stay on an island like in Survivor or competing in a series of challenges like RuPaul’s Drag Race. That means that every competitive reality television show also incorporates real–world gender, race, and other social dynamics.
The CBS television show Big Brother is a unique example that shows how a lack of diversity negatively impacts reality programming. The show’s concept is simple: contestants (known as houseguests) are locked in a house together, completely isolated from the outside world. Each week, houseguests compete to gain power and nominate two others for eviction, and by the end of the week, one houseguest is voted off the show.
What separates Big Brother from other reality television shows is that houseguests are continuously monitored on “live feeds” that viewers are able to watch almost twenty–four/seven. The show airs three times a week, but clips from the live feeds are uploaded to the Internet almost instantaneously.
Live feeds mean that Big Brother doesn’t have the capacity to edit out discrimination in the same way that other shows do. So every summer, like clockwork, TMZ fills up Google with pages of articles reporting on the racism, ableism, homophobia, or sexism that contestants may have perpetuated.
The American version of the show has only had two Asian winners and one Latino winner out of 22 seasons, while there has never been a Black winner. Statistics on the show report that “less than 30 percent of ‘Big Brother’ contestants are people of color.” Those who are nonwhite are even encouraged to act as stereotypes—Kemi Fakunle, a contestant on season 21, even said that producers told her to “act more black”. On top of this, majority alliances that control the show are extremely white (see Season 22 and Season 21, the two most recent seasons).
But in the north, things are changing.
In July 2020, Arisa Cox, the long–time host of Big Brother Canada, became an executive producer of the show. From that moment, she pledged to make the show more diverse. In an interview with ET Canada, Cox said that “[the production team] want[s] there to be no doubt that increasing representation turns out an even better show.”
Unsurprisingly, Cox is right.
The current season is the most diverse yet. Nine out of the fourteen houseguests are nonwhite (four Black, two Asian, one mixed–race South American, African, and European, and one Indigenous). Furthermore, at least five of the houseguests are part of the LGBTQ+ community, as compared to the usual two on Big Brother US.
Consequently, the entertainment level of the season has been through the roof. Like every season, a majority alliance, The Sunsetters, was formed within the first week—but unlike previous years, four out of six of the members were nonwhite. Also unlike previous seasons, contestants outside the alliance were able to win power and create an opposing alliance, The Oddballs.
A split house, blindsides, drama: it’s everything that Big Brother fans have been waiting on for years! Victoria Woghiren was practically the star of the show for the first half of the season, darting between alliances and stirring up drama. Rohan Kapoor won three veto competitions in a row, saving himself from eviction by the skin of his teeth. Jedson Tavernier, Tychon Carter–Newman, and Beth Bieda (the remnants of the Sunsetters known as the “throuple”) continuously shook up the house by flip–flopping with their votes.
Listeners of the reality television show Rob Has a Podcast most recently rated this season a 7.5 out of 10, as opposed to the previous season of Big Brother US, which was rated a 4.2 by the end of the show.
While Big Brother Canada acknowledges the diverse backgrounds of its contestants —the first episode had a land acknowledgement, the second a segment in which LGBTQ+ houseguests talked about their life experiences and hardships, and another early episode that contained a discussion about the Haida tribe, which houseguest Kiefer Collison is a part of, and their history—these contestants are players first.
Due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of contestants are themselves part of a minority group, discrimination doesn’t play a part in shaping the season. That isn’t to say that racism hasn’t occurred, but minority castmates aren’t implicitly targeted for being different. We see players of color finally being allowed to thrive.
The current final six of Big Brother Canada Season 9 is composed of three black men, one Indigenous man, and two white women. Compare that to last season of Big Brother US, which had the same gender balance but all six contestants were white.
After Global TV first released its pledge to have its cast be at least half people of color, CBS followed suit. Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Big Brother US will now all have at least 50% BIPOC. We’ll be able to see the consequences of this promise in June 2021, when Survivor and Big Brother are both potentially slated to air. This trend can only speak to improvements in not only reality television, but the way the entertainment industry approaches television as a whole.
Hopefully these shows can follow in Big Brother Canada’s footsteps—they’ve got some big shoes to fill.