Big Brother Amplified, which kicked off on DStv on Sunday, May 1, 2011, opened with a surprise behind the scenes.
Multichoice Ethiopia, the local distributor of DStv, which broadcasts Big Brother Africa, was originally informed by the organisers of the reality TV production only of the participation of one Ethiopian contestant, Hanni Mekura, in the sixth season.
Misikir Mulugeta, marketing and communications manager for Multichoice Ethiopia, was informed that Mozambican rapper, Herminio, had been replaced with Ethiopian, Danny Kassa, minutes before he was introduced to the audience at the launch in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the Big Brother House is located.
As each contestant was introduced on TV, their photographs were revealed at the press screening of the launching ceremony in Harer Grill at the Hilton Addis on Sunday night. Due to the last minute change, Misikir had to run to quickly print a photograph of Danny for the display. As it was printed on white paper, it stood out among those of the other contestants.
"They are playing a game," Misikir joked to Fortune.
He learned two days prior to the launch that Hanni would be a contestant in the game, and had time to notify her friends and family, who attended the launch where American rapper Busta Rhymes and South African rock band the BLK JKS (pronounced Black Jacks), performed.
"I am not sure why Herminio could not make it," Misikir told Fortune. "Maybe he changed his mind at the last moment, but it is not uncommon."
Previously, there had only been one Ethiopian contestant. In 2009, Yacob Yehdego was a contestant in Big Brother Africa: Revolution. He played again last year in Big Brother Africa: All Stars that featured popular and controversial contestants from previous seasons. On day 35, Yacob was evicted and placed in the barn. On day 50, he voluntarily left the barn, and the show.
Last year, the conventional eviction format of the international franchise was altered with the introduction of the barn, where housemates who had been voted out would stay and from where they could return to the house.
The rule is that every week, each contestant nominates someone they want to see evicted and those with the highest number of nominations are presented to the voting public. Viewers vote for the individual they wish to remain in the house, and the person with the least votes is kicked out.
"The format changes every year," Misikir pointed out. "Nobody knows if the barn would be back this year."
Certain to change this year, is the ease with which Ethiopians can vote. Last year, one could not vote by text message as the former Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC) (now Ethio-Telecom) did not provide the facility.
However, this season, viewers will have the option of voting by text and on the website, according to Misikir. The short code is not yet available to be announced, but voting will only start in the second week of the show, so there is time to finalise the code and rate, which has not been set, he explained.
"It would be less than international rates but more than local, so that many Ethiopians can afford to vote for whomever they want to keep in the house," he said.
The Big Brother House has been revamped and is more elegant and luxurious than before. Along with the apparent comfort where the housemates will be confided for 91 days (or until they are kicked out), the number of contestants has also increased from 14, last year, to 26.
"This is Big Brother Amplified," said Misikir. "It is bigger and louder this year, not only in numbers, but also in the mind of the public which is taking more notice of it."
The last man standing will receive 200,000 dollars.
Contestants plan to do different things with the money if they win.
Alex from Ghana and Jossy from Namibia both planned to take a holiday, following the gruelling three months of strategising and playing around in the house. Hanni, a student who is also a singer performing around Addis Abeba, has her sight set on opening a music studio, while Vina from Nigeria had the establishment of an orphanage in mind.
Yet, as the aim of the contest is to avoid being evicted from the house, and this depends on how a contestant is perceived by the voters, Vina's plan may be only part of her strategy to win over viewers.
"I do not mind using people to get what I want, and I do not mind people using me to get what I want," Millicent from Kenya articulated her game plan on Sunday evening.
Most contestants said they had no strategy and were only going to be themselves and have fun.
"I plan to have as much fun as I can and be as entertaining as possible and just be myself," Daniel said at the launch. "I do not have a strategy. I do not know them."
Hanni has similar aspirations.
"I am a happy person and like to have fun," she told viewers on Sunday. "I plan to deal with each person individually. I have no strategy."
Her mother, Belaynesh Abate, has a similar disposition and is happy that her daughter is participating. She also plans to follow the show closely.
"I used to have a different satellite TV service," she told Fortune. "Now I am a DStv subscriber."
The week did not get off to a good start, as watching strangers play darts and volleyball, as the housemates did the first two days, can be very boring.
"Once they become used to the cameras, they will relax and then things become interesting," said Misikir.
The organisers are expecting excitement, as the programme has an age restriction of 18 for nudity and language. To this end, they seemed to have selected fun loving outgoing people.
"I am an extrovert and crazy person," Bernadina from Namibia described herself at the launch.
The contestants are not evenly distributed between genders; there are 16 women and 10 men.
"This was not intentional," Misikir told Fortune. "They were chosen for their personalities. It was not gender based."
This distribution may be welcomed by some.
"I am happily single, but I need to find a wife somewhere," confessed Nic from Kenya at the launch.
The other countries of the 14 from which contestants were picked are Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
So it is "Game on, just play." The housemates can be seen doing just that live on channel 198 on DStv and their antics can be followed on bigbrotherafrica.com.