Entertainment

08.07.14

No One Told ‘Big Brother Israel’ About the War

Ten Israelis are living quarantined in a house near Jerusalem, almost entirely oblivious to the war raging around them. These are the contestants on this season’s Big Brother.

After a month of war, there isn’t much left on Israeli TV. Only two broadcasts can be counted on to be on the air no matter what time it is: news reports and Big Brother.

The long-running reality show with a massive national following hasn’t severed production since fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas. While many other popular shows, like the Israeli version of The Voice, have been suspended, Big Brother has kept its contestants sequestered in a house near Jerusalem—and they're almost entirely oblivious to the destruction outside.

The decision to keep the show on air has garnered controversy, but ratings aren’t reflecting any criticism: More people are tuning in than ever, says a spokeswoman for Keshet, the show’s broadcaster in Israel. Forty-five percent of Israeli households are watching as the contestants, who have no connection to the outside world, mill about and argue about the petty dramas of their insulated lives.

But perfect seclusion wasn’t made to withstand a warzone. As the conflict escalated, the show came under—literal—fire. The house, located near Jerusalem, heard a real siren go off warning residents to take shelter from a missile attack. The first time alarms sounded, contestants were told it was a false alarm, and reassured with a small party. The second time, they knew something was wrong. The country hasn’t experienced sirens for years, and especially not in that region, which was spared fighting when the conflict began.

So, on July 8—a month since the teens were abducted and after a week of Hamas missile strikes on Israel—a booming voice echoed through the brightly colored house of the sixth season of Big Brother Israel, known as HaAh HaGadol.

Big Brother feels obliged to update you that in the past few days, the security situation has become tense,” it said, according to a translation. “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 [around Tel Aviv] and our area.”

Contestants, huddled on the couches of a communal room, clutched their faces in shock and some broke into sobs. They were assured that their families had been contacted and were safe. But in a country where army service is compulsory—at least 13 of the 15 housemates served in the Israeli Defense Forces—any military action means friends and family members could be called into harm’s way with little notice.

For Israelis outside the sequestered cast, these were tensions they’d been dealing with since the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in June. But Big Brother contestants, already ensconced in the house for two months, were almost entirely in the dark.

Contestants run for the “safe room” during sirens. The house doesn’t have a bomb shelter, so they use a windowless room on the main floor.

“We thought we should continue to air the show because the viewers needed a break from the news,” says the Keshet spokeswoman. She says that as fighting began, the show was urged by its fans via social media to not follow the suit of others that suspended their seasons. Though they’ve faced criticism for not waiting to update contestants to the security situation outside, she says they were seeking permission from the show’s global franchise, which controls some 50 international versions of the show. It was, after all, in violation of the strict seclusion rules. “[We] shared with them a little information—that is not something they do in Big Brothers around the world,” she says, adding that at that point there wasn’t much yet to share.

But this news hit hard for one contestant, Einav Boublil, a 23-year-old mother from a city called Ashkelon that has been hit especially hard in the fighting. Threatening to leave the show if she couldn’t talk to her family, she was allowed a call to ensure they were safe. There have been no updates since then for the group as a whole, but Boublil and another contestant from southern Israel, where fighting was centered, have been allowed another call.

“They had the option to leave all the time, since the minute we informed them this is situation in the south, but they all decided to stay,” the spokeswoman says. “It’s their decision [and] of course if something happened—thank God nothing did happen—we would let them know.”

There was one foreboding clue as to what was to come for the house members. In the middle of the season, new guests arrived to join the house who were aware of the kidnapping—but didn’t know that the discovery of the boys’ bodies would spark large-scale fighting.

After a while, the housemates began speculating. “They started actually talking between themselves saying, ‘Maybe the hostages didn’t come home, maybe they didn’t make it back, maybe something is going on because of that.’ They were actually figuring it out—it was amazing to watch,” says Avitit Moshe, a 30-year-old teacher from Herzliya, who watches the show’s twice-weekly episodes.

She says it’s been interesting to watch the contestants debate what they know of the conflict, as some are staunchly pro-Israel and others more liberal. Sometimes these discussions, similar to what people ouside are debating, are interrupted by the same wartime adjustments Israelis must make—except the housemates don’t know exactly why they’re doing it. At least half a dozen times during the edited shows, contestants have run for the “safe room” during sirens. The house doesn’t have a bomb shelter, so they use a windowless room on the main floor.

Israelis are news-obsessed, and never more so than in times of conflict. Big Brother is live-streamed 24 hours a day, and the edited episodes are aired twice weekly. Moshe tunes in for these, but chooses to follow news of the war on TV and Facebook instead of Big Brother’s constant stream on other days. She says her friends, even those who had never watched before, are also turning to the show “because there is absolutely nothing else on.”

In this week’s episode, as part of their mission, each guest got an “alien” visitor, someone who passed along a message. One Big Brother house member was given a reporter, who told her how bad the situation was outside—if she could see even one minute of a news broadcast she wouldn’t stay in the house, the contestant was told. This was the last outside update.

“They are aware that something’s going on and they can decide to make Big Brother make them speak to their families if they’re that worried. They’re grownups, they can make their own decisions,” Moshe says. But she couldn’t imagine staying put in a similarly isolated situation. “I’d want to know what’s happening or if my family’s OK.”

With the wide-ranging attacks in such a small country, it’s impossible not to know someone tied to the fighting. Moshe says her second cousin was recently killed. It’s a break from this constant worry and violence that has drawn Israelis to the show’s lightheartedness.

“I started watching when I couldn’t hear the news anymore,” says Einav Chai, a 29-year-old recent college graduate from the central city of Rishon LeZion. “Watching it constantly is just depressing and hard…so I turn to the Big Brother channel and you watch those people who have no idea what’s going on and their biggest problem is they don’t have enough milk or food or want to smoke…But for them, living inside the house, it’s their reality, and it was nice to see something that’s not related to the war.”

Now she watches an hour or two a day and her mom keeps the live stream running in the background of their house.

It hasn’t been entirely smooth for Big Brother officials, either. The episodes have occasionally been cut short by news broadcasts, producers have postponed eliminations, and finances have suffered from a sudden drop in commercial sponsorship that has impacted all channels. The broadcaster, Keshet, said it lost $13.1 million in the first two weeks of fighting alone. “We were losing money. It was an economic situation because of the war,” its spokeswoman says. But as things calm during the ceasefire, she’s hopeful that companies will return within a few days. “We are still defrosting.”

As increased hopes rest on the Hamas-Israel ceasefire and both Israelis and Palestinians pick up the pieces, Big Brother is also showing signs of resuming normalcy—in its own unique, reality-show way. The next eviction will take place on Saturday like usual, instead of postponing to a weekday. And the house member departing will be greeted by an audience outside the house, a tradition that had been suspended due to fears of assembling large crowds.

Just like the petty arguments over groceries in the house, these small returns to routine won’t translate in the war-shocked society outside. Fans have only three weeks left of the season to get their fix of a house secluded from war before the Big Brother bubble pops and contestants emerge into a very different Israel than the one they left.