An unreal view of `reality'

Television: In the summer of "Survivor," the debut of "Big Brother" provides an inside look at our neighbors.

July 06, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

In our hard-wired society of hidden cameras and programs that track where you go on the Web, young Americans readily believe that Big Brother is watching them. The question now is: Are they willing to watch "Big Brother"?

"This has the potential to show the truth," said Susie Benchasil, a 23-year-old music teacher, before last night's debut of the new CBS television show. "They are good to each other and they work together, but they can also turn on each other."

Over the next three months, the CBS network hopes to cement the loyalty of the 18-to-30-somethings who have been transfixed by the kitsch and competition of "Survivor." This summer's blockbuster hit, which has almost single-handedly boosted CBS' fortunes with younger viewers, shows the travails of a group of strangers pitted against one another for a $1 million prize on a supposedly deserted tropical island.

Last night, a group of six die-hard "Survivalists" gathered in Tom Pinit's Catonsville den over pizza, sodas and beer to watch the opening episode of "Big Brother," CBS' latest "reality TV" program.

These are people who hold real jobs, lead full lives and boast impressive educations - several hold advanced degrees. They are an advertising executive's dream. And, luckily for CBS, they were all intrigued by the advent of "Big Brother."

"It seems like that's the way American culture is heading - getting involved in people's lives, and living through them," said Pinit, 30, who writes policy papers for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"Big Brother" promises a drama of 10 ordinary people - in their 20s, 30s and 40s - crammed into an 1,800-square-foot house without modern amenities: no telephone, washing machine, microwave oven or television. No watches, computers, newspapers or magazines.

However, the two-bedroom house, on a studio lot in Southern California, does boast a slew of microphones and video cameras hidden behind two-way mirrors to record every move and noise made by its residents for 89 days.

CBS, once dubbed the "Tiffany network" for the high tone of its shows, has now pledged to one-up its weekly spectacle of "Survivor" with a five-times-a-week presentation of "Big Brother." Even when it's not on the air, the activities will be Webcast 24 hours a day on America Online with only a brief delay to guard against profanity and nudity.

"I know what I'm doing at work tomorrow," Pinit joked after the Web site was listed on his television screen.

Each week, "Big Brother" participants will select two among them as candidates for expulsion; viewers will decide, voting online and by telephone, whom to cast out. The last person remaining after three months will win $500,000.

During last night's opening segment, the Catonsville contingent hooted at the stagy explanations from the CBS reporters.

"It's like an Epcot ride," Pear Musikabhumma, a 23-year-old lab technician for the American Red Cross, said scornfully. As others competed to make fun of the nar- rators - "Liar!" cried one. "That was totally hyped!" - laughter repeatedly filled Pinit's house.

The show's contestants include a beauty queen, a prosecutor, a United Nations employee, a cancer survivor who's a varsity athlete, a middle-age roofer, a homemaker and an exotic dancer.

"Is it an hour every night?" asked Kirstin Kurtz, a 24-year-old marketing coordinator, about halfway through. "This is torture." But a few minutes later, Kurtz choked up when George, the roofer about to celebrate his 23rd wedding anniversary, embraced his young daughters.

"Oh, George, he's the only one worth rooting for," Kurtz said.

Although ratings were not available, "Big Brother" cast a shadow over the TV landscape before it appeared. The entertainment trade publication Variety reported yesterday that a senior NBC executive sent an e-mail to employees this week denying that his job was in trouble despite failing to bid for "Survivor" or "Big Brother."

But these new shows are really new only to mainstream American networks. "Survivor" was originally broadcast in Sweden, while "Big Brother" first sprang to life in the Netherlands. On cable, MTV has offered a steady stream of such programs, such as "Real World," which throws college-age kids together into renovated, party-friendly pads, and "Road Rules," which designs globe-trotting scavenger hunts for its participants.

Even the august PBS got into the act this year by broadcasting "1900 House," a British program about a family that spent months in a home living under the conditions of their great-grandparents at the turn of the last century.

ABC set the stage for the gold rush of "reality programming" with its game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" while Darva Conger and Rick Rockwell are still dining out over their one-shot appearance on Fox's groom show "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?"

With such a history behind them, the Catonsville viewers said they harbored few illusions over how real such "reality programming" is.

"I like the entertainment value," Kurtz said. In real life, she said, "these 20-somethings do not get to live in these great houses or get dropped on deserted islands."

But there is another phenomenon at work, too. People who have come of age in the past decade are far more used to the idea that their activities are being tracked. Security cameras have proliferated in schools, elevators, offices and malls, monitoring the activities of anyone who walks into view.

Web sites gather data about their visitors. Some Web sites, such as JenniCam, have embraced that invasion of intimacy, projecting uncensored images of their creators' activities at home.

"There's one Web site with dorm students where you can watch them do anything," Musikabhumma said. "It's almost porn."

"The bottom line is, [the `Big Brother' participants] are agreeing to do this," Koss said. "The only difference is that now it's on CBS rather than MTV."

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