Contestants on Big Brother learn of Covid-19

One of the minor covid-19 storylines I’ve been semi-following is the plight of the television show Big Brother Canada 8.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, it’s a reality tv show where sixteen to twenty people are locked into a house for seventy days.  Contestants periodically vote to evict people, until a winner is crowned.

It’s Survivor in a house, with one major difference:  it happens in real time.

In addition to traditional network episodes, the contestants are live-streamed twenty-four hours a day, and viewers can watch their every move on their computers. 

For a few weeks, these contestants were blissfully unaware of covid-19 and the havoc it has wreaked on the world.

It presented an interesting moral quandary I couldn’t stop thinking about, despite the fact that we can’t actually watch Big Brother Canada in the U.S. and so I could only keep up with it through online reports and You Tube videos.  (There is a U.S. version that begins in the summer and thus didn’t run into the covid-19 issue.)

On the one hand, the contestants were as safe—possibly safer—than anyone else.  They are by design quarantined in a house with no contact with the outside world.  (In the show, the host communicates by talking over a loud speaker or on a television screen.  She never enters the house.)

On the other hand, there was something deeply uncomfortable about watching people bickering on a game show while unaware that the world burned around them.

Eventually, Big Brother told them of the crisis and assured them that all their family members were safe.  Big Brother gave them a second update a week later.  And ultimately, Big Brother Canada pulled the plug on the show and sent all the contestants home this week for their safety and the safety of the production crew.

You can find the videos of Big Brother telling the contestants about covid-19 on YouTube, and they are mesmerizing.  We’ve all been trying to process the waterfall of information that has pummeled us in the last five weeks.  Watching the contestants go through the same process over the span of a few minutes in real time is fascinating.

In the video when the contestants are first told, you can practically hear what they’re thinking by the looks on their faces—Is this a big deal?  It must be, of course, or they wouldn’t be telling us.  But is this a big deal, big deal?  Or is this just happening somewhere else?  This isn’t happening to me, right?  This isn’t happening to my family?

Once they were assured that their families are safe, they visibly relaxed.

And how many of us were playing a similar loop of thoughts in our head?

For these contestants, the covid-19 update was just words.  They were wrapped up in the politics of a stressful game of interpersonal relationships.  Their families were fine.  They weren’t seeing empty shelves at grocery stores, or worried politicians on their televisions.

It couldn’t really be that bad, you could see them thinking, if we’re allowed to continue the game.

Five weeks ago, when we were all at work and school, weren’t we thinking the same thing?

In the second update, production gives them more information.  You can see the contestants trying to work out the question we all were—is this a big deal?

And one of the contestants asked, “Are major sports events still taking place?”

The devastating answer from the voice in the sky: “Every major sports league has now been shut down or postponed.”

That got their attention.  It sure got ours, didn’t it?

Weeks ago when the NBA shut down, followed by the NHL and the cancelling of March Madness, we too got our answer.

This is a big deal.