NOTHING has the power to burst the bubble of reality TV more than real life. When those worlds collide, the fragility of the format and the people within it is exposed.
Last week, the producers of Big Brother paused the ''game'' so they could inform a contestant, Josh Moore, his brother had died. He elected to leave to be with his family and, out of respect, nothing was filmed. He returned briefly last night to say goodbye.
Big Brother's executive producer, Alex Mavroidakis, says the show has a unique duty of care because of the way it isolates its participants. ''That duty of care comes before the show, it comes before anything,'' he says.
Before entering the house, Big Brother contestants provide producers with a list of possible situations they would like to be made aware of.
During the current season, one contestant needed to sign personal papers and another had a relative undergo a minor operation. In both cases information was provided to the housemate with the cameras off.
But such decisions sit within a complex crucible and making line calls is not always so easy.
During the seventh season of Big Brother in Australia, which was broadcast in 2007, the father of one of the contestants, Emma Cornell, died.
Her family asked for her not to be told but the news was leaked to the media who questioned whether it was the right call. ''We are doing what the family has instructed us to do,'' the producer, Kris Noble, said at the time.
In a particularly grotesque moment, a member of the show's studio audience held up a sign that said ''Emma, Your Dad Is Dead'', presumably hoping it would be glimpsed during a live cross to the stage from the house.
Cornell was eventually told, in a private meeting with her brother and the show's psychologist. It was mentioned only peripherally in her exit interview.
But perhaps the most significant example of the real world puncturing the bubble of Big Brother was during the second season of the US version, when the September 11 terrorist attack on New York occurred.
At the time, the series was on air and there were still three housemates in the house, one of whom - Monica Bailey - had a cousin who was listed as missing in the aftermath of the attack.
''When it happened, we were in a bubble, we knew something had happened but we didn't know the extent of it, we had no idea of the devastation,'' Bailey tells the Herald.
Bailey's situation was unique. She was able to speak to her family, but because all air traffic had been stopped, she could not fly home to New York. Bailey elected to stay in the house.
''Should the game have stopped? Thinking about it now, I don't think they knew what to do,'' she says. ''I think they made the best decision they could. If it had been done over again, would they have stopped the show? I think maybe.''
Bailey thinks staying within the insulation of the Big Brother house may have even protected her. ''In a strange way, it did,'' she says. ''Had I seen it [unfold live], I would have lost my mind.''
The producers of the show filmed the three housemates being told and were criticised for exploiting the situation.
Bailey has no hard feelings. ''I think they just did what they thought they should do. People thought they should have ended the game but I don't know.''
To draw an Australian parallel, Mavroidakis says had the Bali bombings happened during a Big Brother season, ''100 per cent I would tell the housemates, 100 per cent we would not make it a television event.''
One of Bailey's fellow contestants was a 41-year-old LA restaurateur, Mike Malin. He has featured in three seasons of US Big Brother and is widely considered its best player.
Malin left the house a month before September 11 and returned for the finale nine days after. At the time, he says, he was aware the producers had given thought to cancelling the finale.
The issue is amplified, he says, because the show depends on its participants being completely desensitised to their real lives.
''Even before you go on the show, you spend a week in a hotel room because they want to pull you as far away from everything in your life as possible,'' he says.
Malin says last week's decision by the Australian producers to halt the game and give Josh Moore time to make a decision to leave or stay was the right one.
In situations like that, he says, the production has an obligation to stop the game. ''I think, for a serious thing, it is absolutely a television show and producer's obligation to inform you and let you decide what to do,'' he says.