CBS Brings 'Big Brother' to TV

Wednesday, June 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) — On the CBS Studio Center lot, tucked into a corner usually given over to parking spots, is the house that voyeurism built.

Dutch, Spanish and German viewers have gone wild over a television show that joins 10 strangers in a spartan home for three months under unblinking cameras and the audience's judgmental eye.

In July, America will get its own version of the peep show with ``Big Brother,'' and CBS is gambling that the titillation quotient and ratings will be as impressive on this side of the Atlantic.

The upside for players: a $500,000 prize for the one who avoids being expelled by fellow housemates and the TV audience. The downside: cameras everywhere. (Yes, everywhere. Even in the bathroom.)

And then there's the tacit ``No Exit'' sign.

``They can leave if they want. The door's open ... but it's a one-way door,'' said Paul Romer, the Dutch TV executive who helped create ``Big Brother'' and is producing the U.S. version.

CBS is the same network that's airing ``Survivor,'' based on a Swedish show, in which 16 people compete on a desert island for a $1 million prize. Both followed the success of ABC's ``Who Wants to be a Millionaire,'' patterned after a British game show.

And audiences have responded. ``Survivor'' managed to hold its own in its debut against ``Millionaire'' and scored impressively among coveted younger viewers.

``People want something different. There's more of a voyeuristic nature to our watching habits,'' contends Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Television, which paid a reported $20 million to Dutch producer Endemol Entertainment for rights to ``Big Brother,'' to run July 6-Sept. 30.

``People are intrigued by seeing someone who could be their next-door neighbor or their Uncle John in a situation like this,'' Moonves said.

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, agrees.

``Voyeurism and television were destined to embrace, and the miracle, I think, isn't so much that they've finally done so. The miracle is they've taken so long,'' Thompson said — especially given the successful tenure of MTV's ``Real World.''

The mild-mannered Romer makes ``Big Brother's'' concept seem benign, despite its chilling Orwellian title (drawn from the novel ''1984,'' about a totalitarian society devoid of privacy).

``It's just a television show. It's fun,'' he said. ``Humans are curious beings. We like to know how other people live. We like to know what other people do.''

The audience will see ``normal Americans, living their lives more or less normally in this house ... It's fun to get to know them during those three months, and it's kind of a reflection of society.''

Kind of. First, the 10 participants will surrender virtually all contact with the outside world along with their privacy.

The 1,800-foot home, with adjoining vegetable garden and exercise area, is screened to prevent the CBS studio crew — which represents the outside world, kind of — from contaminating ``Big Brother's'' hermetic environment.

The house is stocked with staples, including beans, rice, potatoes and frozen meat. Participants have to tend the vegetable crop and the chicken coop.

There's no television, no radio, no newspapers, although each person can bring a small suitcase with a few distractions such as books or games. What's in plentiful supply are cameras (28) and microphones (60).

Tracks running behind one-way mirrors allow the cameras to sneak along in pursuit of the players. Other remote-control cameras are fixed throughout the house, including a small ``lipstick'' version in the shower.

``The bathroom camera is never shown on television,'' said series co-executive producer Douglas Ross. ``It's there for the participants' safety. We also want them to not have any private places, so they can't go into the bathroom and have a conversation which we're not privy to.''

Condensed versions of each day's footage will be shown in half-hour episodes Monday, Tuesday and Friday, with a one-hour recap Saturday. On Thursday, ``Big Brother'' raises the ante with a full hour of live TV.

Internet users can conduct round-the-clock surveillance.

Every two weeks, the housemates will nominate two colleagues for expulsion, with TV viewers then voting out one of them by telephone. At the end, the audience will choose the winner from the three remaining players.

The German version of ``Big Brother'' used careful editing to juice up the action, according to one magazine article. Romer, who contends that's ``not entirely accurate,'' said no liberties will be taken here.

``We're on the Internet 24 hours a day, real time, so if we try to manipulate events we would have a lot of reaction from the Internet community,'' he said.

``Big Brother'' will, however, toy with its guests. The group will face regular challenges, such as agreeing on who gets dibs on rare phone privileges.

More than 1,000 people submitted videotaped applications to become players. Next week, 64 finalists will arrive in Los Angeles to undergo further scrutiny, including psychological testing and what CBS vows will be comprehensive background checks.

Because of revelations that emerged about instant couple Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger after Fox aired ``Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?'', Ross said, ``we wanted to make sure we were doubly careful.''

Their overseas popularity aside, CBS' summer series arrived with baggage. A losing contestant from the Swedish version of ``Survivor'' committed suicide in 1997, although the network denied responsibility. And ``Big Brother'' was harshly criticized before it aired in Holland and Germany, with The Netherlands Institute of Psychologists calling the show ``irresponsible and unethical.''

Romer notes that ``Big Brother'' has generated little controversy so far here, despite heavy advertising and publicity.

Which is not to say it's avoided scrutiny altogether.

Dorothy Swanson, founder of the grassroots Viewers for Quality Television, dismissed ``Big Brother'' as ``lazy programming.''

In search of escapist summer fare, however, Swanson admitted she'll likely tune in. So will Syracuse's Thompson.

As a professor, ``I'm disgusted at the way the greatest communications medium in planetary history is going,'' he said.

``The other side of me, however, the person alone in a room with a television and no accountability, can't wait for the next 'Survivor,'' can't wait until July to see 'Big Brother.'''