Big Brother is drugging you: Knesset meets reality show scandal

The Israeli parliament has a lot on its plate. Homeland security, the potential threat from Iran, an occupation and a smorgasbord of domestic issues. However, that doesn’t mean that local politicians don’t have time to consider what’s going on on television. That is, they make time for TV in the daily agenda when a story like the one that erupted last week bubbles up.

On Monday morning of this week, a special committee was called in to discuss the recent turmoil surrounding Israel’s most successful reality television show: “Big Brother.”

It began two weeks ago with a letter drafted by lawyer and runner-up of season two of Israeli “Big Brother,” Saar Sheinfain. Two years after leaving the house, Sheinfain decided that he had a score to settle with the production staff to the tune of NIS 2.5 million. He demanded payment within days and assured Keshet Broadcasting that failure to dole out would prompt immediate release of sensitive details about their show.

When Keshet refused to comply, Sheinfain kept his promise, publishing a huge spread in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper about the psychiatric medication he was urged to take while taking part in the second season of Big Brother. Keshet responded publicly during their broadcast of the current Big Brother season the following day, saying that the contestants of the show are treated by medical professionals including psychologists and psychiatrists when the need arises. These meetings are fully confidential, as all patient-doctor encounters are by law, and are in the interest of both the individuals and the production.

This outburst has brought to light the longtime rivalry between Yedioth Ahronoth and Keshet. For years, Yedioth’s Noni Mozes and Keshet’s Avi Nir have been at each other’s throats in a communications battle.

Over the course of the weekend, following the printing of Yedioth’s article, another former contestant came forward with similar claims about Dr. Ilan Rabinowich and his pills.

Meanwhile, Sheinfain has continued to pursue the issue. He has filed a lawsuit, suing Keshet for handicapping him with psychiatric medication.

The debate quickly took over Internet forums, evoking harsh criticism of Rabinowich and the production. The culmination of the query took place on Monday morning in the Israeli Knesset.

Controversial as the story is, it was surprising to see politicians mix with celebrities in the Knesset’s meeting.

The first thing that caught my attention was the pride with which the Knesset members assured the audience that they do not watch the show. As if to say that this program, which receives an average of 44 percent rating, is beneath the noble politicians of the parliament. Maybe the fact that the rating is so extraordinarily high points to the cheap nature of the content. Or maybe it is the opposite. In either case, I found it hard to accept the opinions of individuals who were called in to discuss an issue that they openly admit to know nothing about. If these “experts” don’t watch the show, how can they deem what is and is not appropriate? Think what you want about the show, but when you come in for a special meeting about it, a meeting that will influence the future of the program, you should at least do your homework.

For most viewers, Big Brother is a skeleton in the closet, a guilty pleasure, like Twinkies and Britney Spears. Just as hipsters do not self identify, Big Brother lovers will rarely admit to watching the show. I have interviewed dozens of local artists who go on rants about the death of culture, marking the Big Brother as the flag of destruction. The catch is, in slamming it, they give the show a hint of legitimacy. Its size and ratings make Big Brother, whether we like it or not, a part of culture and a part of this society.

The concept of Big Brother is not an Israeli invention. In fact, it’s a Dutch format owned by a company called Endemol. The format has been purchased throughout the world in tens of countries. It is an open social experiment that has caught the attention of viewers across religious, socio-economic and national lines. And yet our leaders feel entitled to call it “trashy, pornographic and cheap” – but, lest we forget, they don’t watch it. That sounds to me like a bunch of judgment based on prejudice, not knowledge.

The next thing that caught my attention in this debate was the claim of the disgruntled housemates.


As Erez Da Drezner explains in this interview, he was given pills by a psychiatrist who didn’t offer any information about the side effects or nature of the medication. No one tried to hide the fact that housemates were taking pills. That’s the catch. In the Big Brother house, there is nowhere to hide. There are cameras everywhere, including the bathroom, yuck. Following the second season, Goel Pinto made a documentary about his stay in the house in which he states openly that he was treated by a psychiatrist and given medication. The difference is that Pinto is at peace with his choices while Sheinfain and Da Drezner feel they were deeply wronged.

Last time I checked, being handed a pill doesn’t mean you have to swallow it. And being offered to take part in a reality show doesn’t mean you have to accept. People made choices here, choices that put them in an unfavorable light and possible physical harm.

As Ran Telem, Programming Director of Keshet, told the Knesset committee, “people meet themselves in this show and that’s where the conflict comes in.”

For Keshet, putting people in a fish bowl that is a veritable cash cow comes with heavy responsibility. On one hand, Keshet claims to have the best intentions in their hearts and on the other, they are happy to let the blame trickle down to the tenants and the psychiatrist. In the same meeting, Elad Kuperman told the Knesset that they are television people. “I do what I am good at, which is television,” he said. Kuperman assured the committee that all areas outside of his expertise are handed over to professionals, including Dr. Rabinowich. The subtext here is that they brought the horse to the water but it’s not their fault or responsibility if the horse died of lead-poisoning while drinking.

It sounds to me like this psychiatrist was perhaps a bit too willing to be a candy dispenser and that the housemates were a bit too eager to hand their responsibility for their own physical and mental health over to someone they had just met.