Reality-show veteran Arnold Shapiro is hoping to perform a kind of emergency CPR--or better yet, the Heimlich maneuver--on one of network TV's most utterly despised, but decent-performing, reality programs.
Critics trashed CBS' Big Brother when it premiered last summer, starring 10 sequestered houseguests videotaped 24 hours a day. But thanks to (believe it or not) semi-respectable ratings, CBS ordered a sequel, snagged creative control from Dutch producer Endemol Entertainment and handed the house keys over to Shapiro, an Emmy winner who's produced more than 50 prime-time reality specials including Scared Straight!
"This is a different show," Shapiro declares. "It's my mandate."
But are viewers willing to give Big Brother a second chance? While much of CBS' recent publicity has focused on the show's new rules (they vote each other off), new cast (read: not boring), new schedule (three days a week instead of six) and upgraded creature comforts (no more bland Ikea furniture), the series still faces some lingering credibility questions when it returns July 5.
This is, after all, the game that changed its own rules more often than the houseguests changed their underwear. Once considered a no-no, mild-mannered contestant Curtis was sent outside the compound for a trip to the Emmys. A dog was brought in to spice things up. And in their most nakedly desperate moment, producers even tried to bribe someone $50,000 to leave--just so they could replace one of them with a perky babe named Beth.
The voyeuristic experiment--which has been such a hit in Europe--just plain sucked in America. And it left producers scrambling.
"After they got on the air, they found out the European model didn't work as well in America," Shapiro says. "Then all kinds of changes had to be made."
The results often times weren't pretty. At one point, contestant George "Chicken Man" Boswell nearly talked his roomies into a house revolt, and the group briefly flirted with plans to walk out on the show.
The producers "lost a lot of control with what was going on," says writer Martha Soukup, who covered the Big Brother action for Salon.com. "The people in the house just got annoyed [with producers] rather than doing anything that was dramatically interesting."
But this time, Shapiro insists Big Brother has learned from its mistakes. Casting is almost complete on the new sequel, which will feature 12 contestants, instead of 10, competing inside the house for 75 to 80 days. And at a time when Survivor is facing its own allegations of manipulation, Shapiro says Big Brother won't toy with the rules or fudge the truth.
"All our rules and format will have been laid out in advance, the finalists will know what they are, and we will not deviate from them. So we expect a much smoother show," he says. "I just had a talk with the entire staff not one hour ago about ethics and honesty. And I made sure everyone understands we are not manipulating the action, we are not making false promises and we are not doing anything unethical or dishonest."
Former contestant Brittany Petros says that's an important factor.
"I think the main thing is to get the houseguests to trust you," says the bubbly 26-year-old, perhaps best known in the house for her ever-changing hair color and avowed virginity. One of the biggest problems with last year's show, she says, was that the contestants had never seen Big Brother, and many of them were paralyzed by a fear of how they would be edited.
"I think we would have done a lot more controversial things if we trusted the producers," she says. "We had this whole false reality that it was us against them. Both [former contestants] Jamie and Cassandra were crazy nervous about how we were edited. It just all snowballed, and you didn't have anyone that was normal."
Meanwhile, not everything on the show is changing--namely the return of last year's host, Early Show newsreader Julie Chen. Last summer, many criticized Chen, most notably for her often bland rapport with the houseguests. But Shapiro believes the criticism was misplaced.
"What happened last time was they were inventing the show on-air, and Julie got put into some uncomfortable situations," Shapiro said. (It was Chen, after all, who was in charge of trying to bribe the remaining contestants and coax one of them to leave the house and take the $50,000.)
"That's not going to happen here," he says. "We've met with her and found out what made her comfortable and uncomfortable, and that's how we plan to move forward."
Shapiro says his relationship with Endemol Entertainment has been "a very cordial one" since he's taken over. "We learned and benefited from last year," he says. "We spent the initial period screening old shows, determining what we felt worked and didn't work. Now, we're looking to the future."
But revamping an entire series has been tough. "This is the most challenging job I've had," he adds. "It's right up there with creating and launching Rescue 911. That was for CBS, but I was 12 years younger.
"This is an amazing sociological experiment," he says, "and I think everybody wants to see it work."
Petros, meanwhile, has mixed feelings about her time in the house. "When all is said and done, I'm glad I did it," she says. "But I hope Shapiro productions has some counseling [for contestants] because it's really hard. And anyone that's going to go on the show needs to really, really, really consider that they may go through depression.
"I think the next set, it will be easier on them," she adds. "We had pretty good ratings, but the media just hated us. So at least they're going into it knowing that Big Brother wasn't this huge show. Maybe they're thinking this might be a fun thing to do for the summer."