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This summer, at least two European reality-based TV shows are on their way, like a tidal wave, across the Atlantic: "Survival" and "Big Brother".
TV producers use "reality-based" to describe any show that uses ordinarily people instead of professional actors.
That includes everything from the old "Candid Camera" to "Cops," from "America's Funniest Home Videos" to "When Animals Attack."
"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," for example, was originally a European reality-based show that came to the U.S. and became not only a TV hit but a much-talked-about news event.
Millionaire seems like a pretty "unreal" scenario -- answering trivia questions for money on a futuristic TV set. But, it uses regular, untrained, unknown people to answer the questions.
And after all, Millionaire isn't only about the factual questions (unlike say, Jeopardy). It's about watching, very closely, all the details of how ordinary people respond to pressure and attention.
We meet the contestants, and then watch how they act with Regis, what strategies they use, whom they call upon for help, and how they deal with the escalating pressure of difficult questions -- all under the glaring lights and the intense eye of the camera.
Love It or Hate It
Does that sound exciting? Or does it sound totally boring?
People respond to these shows in very different ways. Those who think they are exciting often can't explain why.
The new reality shows this summer take the idea of "watching ordinary people in extraordinary situations" much, much farther.
So far, in fact, that the shows have sparked an international debate on privacy, authenticity, and television ethics.
Survival of the Fittest
The first show, "Survivor," is based on a 1997 Swedish program called "Operation: Robinson" (named for the novel The Swiss Family Robinson).
TV producers put 16 volunteer contestants -- and a camera crew -- on a tropical island for 6 weeks. Each week, the contestants have to pick one person to be kicked off the island. The resulting bickering, deal-making, and jockeying for position and popularity is all captured on camera. (Plus, it's a beautiful location and everybody is in bathing suits.)
No Place to Hide
The second show, "Big Brother," locks 10 volunteer contestants in a single house for three months-- but the house is wired with 28 video cameras. It's a little bit like MTV's "The Real World."
There is nowhere in the house a person can go and not be recorded, so everything they do and say is visible.
(Yes, everything: there are cameras in the showers, cameras in the bedrooms. No wonder the show was such a hit in Europe.)
Indeed, "hit" would be an understatement. The show was a national obsession in Holland, where it premiered. It aired every night, and people were glued to their TVs. It was talked about everywhere. The show's Web site (where you could log on any time, 24 hours, and see what was happening in the house) got 100 million viewers, making it the most visited site in all of Europe.
After Holland, the show moved to Germany where it was just as big. When contestants were released from the house, they found they were instant celebrities. They had fan clubs, they were in the papers, they were recognized on the street-- the whole deal.
Both shows will be on CBS this summer. They should be a little less racy than the European versions (rules for broadcast television in America are stricter than in most of Europe, where, for example, partial nudity is allowed.)
What's the Fuss?
Still, the shows raise a lot of issues.
In both Holland and Germany, conservative social groups tried to prevent them from going on the air.
Some people say the shows are just boring. Why do people want to watch a bunch of strangers sitting around a house all day?
TV used to be, like the movies, an escape from reality. A unique story, specially crafted, either funny or exciting or intelligent or emotional . . . or something! TV producers admit the plot lines on these shows are mostly unremarkable. Yet CBS is expecting to attract tens of millions of viewers, and everybody is sure they will.
However, these shows are not always harmless, and not always successful.
One contestant on the Swedish show "Operation: Robinson" killed himself a month after he got "voted off" the island.
And the Fox show, "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" went well at first, but then fell apart. The married couple didn't get along-- in fact, they hated each other-- and the millionaire had misled the show's producers in order to be chosen. There were reports he even had a violent past.
Voyeurs and Exhibitionists
In regular life, watching the intimate details of a stranger's life is called spying, or "voyeurism," and is frowned upon, if not downright illegal.
But these shows indulge and seem to celebrate voyeurism.
Supporters say most people have fantasies of peering through their neighbors' walls --"reality shows" allow them to indulge those fantasies in a relatively safe, controlled way.
On the flip side, the people being peered at are volunteers. They want to be watched-- a characteristic some would call exhibitionism. In this case exhibitionism and voyeurism combine to create wildly popular television.
Fifteen Minutes of Fame
The success of these shows might have something to do with how they extend the experience of "celebrity" to the average person.
Before, only the beautiful, the wealthy, or the well-connected could be famous. These shows pick average people off the street, almost at random, and make them genuinely famous (in Europe, "Big Brother" participants went on to create TV shows, record CDs, and more).
It's almost a more democratic version of celebrity that relies on luck and fate.
Finally, these shows at the very least reflect a new trend in global TV trade.
Traditionally, the U.S. came up with tons of ethically questionable but massively popular entertainment, and then marketed it around the globe.
Other cultures, including many European countries, often complained their cultures were being degraded by what the U.S. was selling them. But now Europe is inventing the latest pop culture ideas -- the "mass-market guilty-pleasure snack TV," in the words of critic Kurt Andersen -- and the U.S. is buying it up as fast as it can.
The "buzz" and gossip surrounding these shows will probably bring in as many viewers as any other factor.
And indeed, these shows will be unique, setting cultural precedents.
So watch if you want, but beware: in Germany, an estimated 5 million people got hooked and tuned in every night it was broadcast -- five times a week. Your life may soon not be your own.
--Contributed by Aaron Page
What do you think? How do you feel about reality based TV? Tell us why you plan to watch. Or fill us in on why you wouldn't be caught dead watching these shows.
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