The appeal of Big Brother is so simple that, ironically, it’s very hard to explain. Unlike most other reality TV shows with unambiguous loglines, Big Brother doesn’t demand anything terribly specific of its contestants. Sixteen men and women live together in isolation for three months under 24-hour surveillance. That’s it. Sometimes the contestants compete in challenges, such as obstacle courses or bouts of trivia under the eye of Julie Chen, who's been hosting the show since Season 1. Once a week, someone’s voted out.
At its heart, Big Brother is a show without a core concept, where "playing" means talking to other players, establishing trust, and scheming one’s way to the top. The reason it’s endured for almost 20 years -- and the reason fans across the United States are salivating for the show’s 20th season, which started June 27 and airs three days a week -- is precisely this rare emphasis on social strategy. It is reality TV at its purest.
Big Brother premiered in America on CBS on July 5, 2000, barely one month after the enormously popular debut of Survivor at the beginning of what would soon become an international reality game show craze. Much like Survivor, Big Brother was based on a Scandinavian series that had aroused controversy for its somewhat dubious ethics -- its combination of round-the-clock observation and real people under televised scrutiny having not sat particularly well with Dutch audiences.
But the original idea proved widely mutable. There have been nearly 400 seasons across more than 50 iterations of Big Brother internationally since its inception, including India’s Bigg Boss, Italy’s Grande Fratello, and Portugal’s Secret Story: Casa dos Segredos. In the UK, Big Brother is an indispensable part of the cultural fabric; what transpires week after week is reliable fodder for tabloids around the country, and stars of seasons past go on to remain pseudo-celebrities in Britain for ages. When it was adapted stateside, that Orwellian, rat-in-a-maze sensationalism helped make Big Brother US an instant and enduring hit. The show, including its celebrity spinoffs, has been on the air now, watched by millions and inexhaustibly beloved, for 18 years.