We become the watchful Big Brother, Big Sister

Preview: From `Survivors' on a tropical island to a British family living without running water and McDonalds, `reality television' gives us a chance to test our voyeuristic sensibilities.

May 31, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Welcome to Reality Summer -- a television season in which we will get to see rats crawling over peoples' bodies as they sleep and people eating the rats when they awake; a mother of three having an emotional breakdown and her 11-year-old daughter telling a hidden camera how appalled she is by her parents' behavior.

And it is all being done for the greater honor and glory of the almighty dollar. Who says television debases the culture?

It would be hard not to know about the debut of "Survivor" tonight on CBS, such is the job of promotion that the network has done in selling this 13-week series as the television event of the summer.

"Survivor" features 16 contestants on an island near Borneo in the South China Sea competing for a $1 million prize. Contestants are eliminated each week by a vote of the others until just one is left -- America's newest TV millionaire. (In a European version that first aired in Sweden, one contestant attempted suicide after being eliminated.)

And that's not the half of it.

On June 12, public television will offer its less-commercially craven version of the genre with "The 1900 House," a four-week series that features a middle-class English family of six moving into a house equipped as it would have been a century ago except for the cameras and recording devices that allow us to watch the family come apart at the seams over the lack of hot water and other amenities.

CBS comes back on July 6 with "Big Brother," another dose of voyeurism-and-reality that offers us the chance to watch 10 strangers living together 24 hours a day for three months under constant camera surveillance in a house equipped only for the most basic necessities.

"At stake is a $500,000 grand prize and a lifetime of notoriety," a CBS Web site for the show says under the headline: "Who puts the fun back in dysfunction?"

"Big Brother" was a big hit in Europe. The cameras and recording devices in that version, however, took viewers into the shower and bedrooms with the contestants. CBS promises more discretion.

While such programming certainly looks like another awful TV development, it is a mistake to get too culturally cosmic about it at this point.

As Sasha Torres, who teaches television at the Johns Hopkins University, put it: "Do we know if they have any appeal to American television viewers at this point?"

The answer is we don't. While Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS, cites huge ratings for "Big Brother" and "Survivor" in the Netherlands and Spain, that is no guarantee they will do well here. For one thing, viewers in those countries have far fewer channels to choose from than viewers in America. In April, ABC aired an MTV-inspired reality program, "The Making of a Band," which took viewers backstage in the founding of a pop music group, and it bombed in the ratings.

What we do know is that CBS is the only commercial network committing to such programming this summer, and the actions of one network do not a trend make. Furthermore, CBS' commitment is mainly a matter of commerce: "Reality television" is much cheaper than making original, dramas, sitcoms and movies and a relatively inexpensive way to have fresh summer programs at a time when the networks can no longer afford to lose viewers for three months with a steady diet of reruns.

"These shows are not nearly as expensive as winter programming. A show like `Big Brother' is one-third [the cost] of a normal sitcom," Moonves said last week. "So, it's less risky. `Survivor,' by the way -- win, lose or draw -- we have already sold to eight sponsors. So, no matter what the ratings are, we made a profit on it," he said.

Helping with the pre-sale was the promise of product placement in the show for athletic gear from companies such as Reebok.

It is also a mistake to take the word "reality" too literally in connection with these shows.

First of all, the 16 contestants in "Survivor" were carefully chosen by Moonves and Marc Burnett, executive producer of the show, "to fit certain demographics" in a process that Burnett described as "casting sessions." The final group, which ranges in age from 22 to 72, is not random. Burnett says certain types and personalities -- adventure seekers who favor sky-diving and whitewater-rafting vacations -- were picked because he and Moonves thought they would appeal to viewers and heighten the drama of the show.

"It's not really a reality series," Burnett acknowledged last week. "The term we've come up with to describe it is dramality, as opposed to reality or even docudrama."

As he explained it, "I mean, it's kind of a reality show, but it's not real in the sense that these people aren't really marooned on this island. If they got sick or needed to get off the island, they could get off. Clearly we're not doing `Lord of the Flies' here, so it's not true, pure reality. On the other hand, it's not scripted drama. It's somewhere in between: dramality."

CBS did not make the dramality available to critics.

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