Israel’s “Big Brother” waited almost a month to tell contestants that tensions were escalating

Calling the shots inside, while a conflict rages outside.
Calling the shots inside, while a conflict rages outside.
Image: AP Photo/Dan Balilty
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Big Brother Israel is one of the most-watched shows in the country. But as this summer’s conflict in Gaza unfolded, the show’s premise—that a group of people are forced to live together in a house completely cut off from the outside world—became increasingly absurd.

The first time an air-raid siren went off in the outskirts of Jerusalem, where the house is located, its residents—by then nearly two months into their confinement—were told it was a technical glitch (link in Hebrew). But after a second alarm the next day, July 8—almost a month after three Israeli teens were kidnapped, on June 12, and later found dead, setting off an escalation of tensions and violence—the show’s producers decided to break the rules and tell the contestants what was going on.

This video via the Jerusalem Post (in Hebrew) shows their reactions.

It seems the producers couldn’t resist milking the drama of the situation a little. Here’s the translation of the announcement from the disembodied Big Brother voice:

“Tenants of the house…  As you all know, with your entrance into Big Brother, you were disconnected from the outside world. Living in a place cut off from outside is an essential part of your, and the viewers’, experience in the house. The producers do everything to preserve this disconnection. We don’t allow messages from the outside or updates on events outside of the house—unless the situation can have a direct impact on the house’s tenants, or on their family members outside. Big Brother feels obliged to update you that in the past few days, the security situation has become tense. There has been an escalation in the south, which includes rocket fire, mainly on those living just outside the Gaza Strip, but which this evening has spread to Gush Dan [the Tel Aviv area] and our area.”

Only then does the announcer say that the producers have been in touch with the participants’ families, and that they are OK. Then, after a pregnant pause during which one of the residents with family in an affected area is seen weeping, he reassures her that her family is out of harm’s way.

For Keshet, the network that produces Big Brother Israel (and Prisoners of War, the precursor to the US terrorism-themed drama Homeland), the situation presented a dilemma: take the show off the air, or weave the conflict into the show. Keshet’s choice of the latter path wasn’t without its critics. A post on the show’s Facebook page (Hebrew) attracted a lot of angry comments. “There are people there with children,” wrote one commenter. “It was their right to know long ago.” There were also some who said Keshet shouldn’t take advantage of violence for commercial purposes.

“[It’s] something we really debated,” Keshet’s vice president for programming, Ran Telem, told Hollywood Reporter. ”The audience appreciates the break they get, so we try very hard despite the situation to keep it on the air.” Keshet did not respond to a request for comment from Quartz.

Sharon Shahaf of Georgia State University, an expert on Israeli television, tells Quartz that the network has often adapted its shows to external situations: “The only thing that made sense in that situation was to let them get a sense of what is going on and then their responses would mirror the responses of the Israeli audience at home,” Shahaf explains. She points out that there were no contestants with leftist or pro-Palestine views on the show, so there was little discussion or disagreement on the politics or morality of Israel’s actions. Instead, the show focused on the contestants’ emotional reactions.

The network has faced this issue before. In 2006, during the Israel-Lebanon conflict, Keshet’s singing reality show A Star is Born arranged a wedding for a couple whose neighborhood was unsafe, giving viewers a break from the constant barrage of war news.

And it seems to be taking the same approach this time—rallying its participants and viewers as a show of patriotism during conflict. In a recent episode after the Big Brother announcement, the contestants’ challenge was to plan a wedding (Hebrew) for a couple who couldn’t get married at home because their area was under attack.

Hebrew translation by Josh Krisch and Gideon Lichfield.