CBS’s “Big Brother” specializes in excruciating moments, but last week’s eviction episode — in which contestant Jack Matthews, a 28-year-old fitness trainer from Florida, was eliminated — was especially awkward.
When Matthews sat for his live exit interview with host Julie Chen Moonves, producers took the unusual step of showing him footage of himself from earlier in the season, when he made “ugly comments” (Chen’s description) about two contestants of color in the house — and then asked him to explain himself.
In multiple recent seasons, “Big Brother,” in which a group of people live together while voting each other out week by week, has battled the same problem. The online audience — who tune in to 24/7 live feeds of the house — often catch contestants saying something racist, misogynistic or otherwise offensive, and then the moment goes viral or is picked up by TMZ. But because these controversies don’t make it into the weekly edited-for-TV broadcast, it can feel as if the online viewers are watching a completely different show.
This oddly warped viewing experience has been a longtime source of irritation for fans, and the issue has spilled into public view more than ever this season, thanks to last week’s episode and a recent news conference at the Television Critics Association (TCA) event where two reporters grilled CBS executives about the editing and production behind the show.
Last Thursday, Matthews grimaced as he watched the videos, in which he used derogatory language talking about Kemi Fakunle, who is black, and said he wanted to “stomp a mud hole” through her chest. In another clip, one contestant said “the proof was in the pudding” in regard to Isabella Wang, who is Asian, and Matthews added “rice pudding.”
Afterward, Matthews insisted that “rice pudding” had “absolutely nothing to do” with ethnicity, and it was an inside joke from another conversation. He also swore the “mud hole” line was simply a reference to a past “Big Brother” contestant and he thinks Fakunle is “a great person,” though he apologized and admitted that he regretted some of his comments. (At one point, he also called Fakunle “a cancer on the house” and compared her to a tumor.)
“I think this game and being in 24-hour view of people and you say things, and I wouldn’t say that I fully support the things that I said and the way that I said them,” Matthews explained. “If I could take them back, I would.”
Before this, Matthews was portrayed on the TV broadcasts as the goofy yet competitive bro who seemed to get along with everyone, until the last week when his alliance imploded. But online, fans petitioned to get Matthews kicked off the show last month because of his attitude toward Fakunle. (Fakunle also declined to comment for this article but wrote in a Twitter statement that she was “extremely disappointed and disgusted” by the footage she saw once she left the house, and is “saddened to be associated with such a negative display of human character and am horrified that this is now a part of my life story.”)
Andy Dehnart, who runs the site Reality Blurred, has been covering the troubling contestant behavior and “Big Brother” editing all season — noting how Matthews’s aggressive statements about Fakunle were cut from the TV broadcast, while producers kept in scenes where it looked as if Fakunle implied violent behavior. He wrote that Fakunle revealed on the 24/7 live feed that a producer tried to get her to wave her finger and say “uh-uh girlfriend” in a stereotypical manner during a “diary room” confessional.
At a CBS session at TCA this month, he brought it up to executives, arguing that “Survivor” has made similar suspect editing choices. “Is it acceptable to you that your two top reality shows allow this behavior and continue to perpetuate stereotypes through the choices the producers are making in editing and in production?”
Thom Sherman, CBS’s executive vice president of programming, acknowledged that a producer “overstepped” when trying to coax a sound bite from Fakunle. “That producer was reprimanded, received unconscious-bias training, as did all of the producers on the show, and we don’t believe that an incident like that will happen again,” he said.
Soon after, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans addressed the show’s highly unfortunate “Camp Comeback” twist, which brought back the first three eliminated contestants, who happened to be all people of color but had them live in a separate part of the house and kept them out of competitions. Deggans also noted CBS’s well-documented issues with gender diversity in its scripted programming. “We are now telling you that you have a problem with your reality shows,” Deggans said. “Why can’t you take that criticism and do some substantive looking at it rather than trying to spin it?”
Sherman responded that half of the “Big Brother” cast this season is “diverse,” while Kelly Kahl, president of CBS Entertainment, said they would review the show at the end of the season. “I would say that we have heard things on the show that we are not comfortable with, that we have not enjoyed hearing; and we will absolutely, after the season is over, take a look at the show,” he said.
The full transcript of the session, which made many headlines, is here. But unless CBS makes a major casting overhaul or makes a true effort to be transparent with what happens on the live feeds, it’s hard to see what can change.
CBS declined to comment for this article, pointing to a statement it released earlier in the season. “At times, the Houseguests say things that we do not condone. We share some of the viewers’ concerns about inappropriate behavior and offensive comments, and producers have addressed specific incidents with the Houseguests involved. There is absolutely no truth that the casting of the show is racially motivated, that the Houseguests’ behavior is predetermined or that the outcome is controlled in any way.”