Special Report


The small screen goes voyeuristic, Darwinian and interactive

Robert Sheppard April 10 2000
Special Report


The small screen goes voyeuristic, Darwinian and interactive

Robert Sheppard April 10 2000
It was both a game show and real life, and sometimes it was hard to see where one ended and the other began. For 100 days, from Sept. 22 to Dec. 30 of last year, nine people in their hormone-driven 20s and early30s were locked in a house in suburban Amsterdam, their every move, their every dalliance, filmed by 83 cameras and broadcast daily on Dutch television and over the Internet. Perfect strangers, they had been chosen to represent the desired demographics of the TV stations viewers.

And most of what they did was pretty boring. They talked endlessly among themselves. They had to complete mindless tasks like keeping a fire burning for seven days or learning all of Holland’s 90 postal codes by heart. But then, somehow, love—or at least what passes for love in the electronic age— crept in where even the corrupting eye of the television camera couldn’t quite reach. This was not emergency-room nurse Darva marrying supposed-multimillionaire Rick—sight unseen—on a show that was a cross between a beauty pageant and The Price Is Right. This was Bart, a young soldier just back from peacekeeping duties in Bosnia, falling for Sabine, a fashion stylist with long blond braids. And—to the delight of the viewing audience—the attraction was clearly mutual.

But that relationship, too, was doomed from the start. This was a game show, after all, one with the ironically hip name of Big Brother. Every few weeks, the group was to select two of their number for expulsion, and viewers would decide by voting over the Internet which of the two had to go. The last contestant in the house would win 250,000 Dutch guilders, roughly $160,000. So, in October, when the other housemates grew jealous of the sparks developing between Bart and Sabine, they nominated the two of them for expulsion.

Viewers, by now fanatical and numbering in the millions, cut Sabine loose. Bart, unaware—as were the other contestants—of the popularity of their program (even on rival stations, talk shows analyzed Big Brother) wailed his anguish to the ever-present cameras: “All of a sudden, not only the people in the house but the audience takes your girlfriend away from you.” And when the two spent their first and final night together before Sabine's forced departure, the infrared camera catching every grunt and twitch of the blankets, more than just a personal relationship was consummated. So, too, was a new sub-genre of television—voyeuristic, relentlessly Darwinian and interactive. Call it Peeping Tom TV.

Big Brother’s success is spawning a host of clones and imitators around the world, the newest wave in a tide of “reality-based” television that took off a year ago with the rebirth of the high-stakes game show. In the process, the family TV is metamorphosing from a comforting electronic hearth into an aggressive probe prying into closets of ordinary folk. Marshall McLuhan’s global villagers are peering in the bedroom windows of an ever-increasing group of contestants willing to check their personal privacy at the door.

Where is mainstream TV going with all this orchestrated voyeurism? No one is quite sure. In Germany, television authorities, church groups and some politicians are—shades of the early days of rock ’n’ roll—trying to ban the just-launched German edition of Big Brother on the grounds that it is degrading to have humans on constant display, like in a zoo. But even if they succeed, that wont stop a fully Americanized version of Big Brother taking over the airwaves for 100 straight nights on CBS this summer, or the smaller Canadian production houses that are gearing up similar offerings for the specialty channels, or the sense that, once again, TV is about to move the cultural yardsticks.

Reality shows take many forms. At the benign end are “docu-soaps,” ongoing documentaries, often with the same characters reappearing, about pet lovers or cruise-ship vacationers. Then there are the more macabre day-in-the-life stories drawn from real police arrests (COPS ), and dramatically presented game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, a Las Vegas-style morality play about temptation. At the bizarre extreme are super-contrived programs like Big Brother—or like Survivor, for which CBS “shipwrecked” 16 carefully selected contestants last month on one of the three islands that make up Pulau Tiga in the South China Sea. They will be there for 39 days along with nearly 100 camera and support crew. Billed as a cross between Lord of the Flies and “an edgy” Gilligan's Island, the 13-episode Survivor—scheduled to air this summer—will show the contestants foraging for food and building shelter on the 25-square-kilometre island inhabited by two-metre water lizards, venomous snakes, pythons, Macaque monkeys and wild pigs. The participants, subjected in advance to background checks by private investigators and a battery of psychological tests, are expected to organize themselves in a way that emphasizes teamwork and inter-dependency, the producers say. But in the end, only one person—one “survivor,” selected by a series of votes of the “tribal council”—will walk away with the $1-million (U.S.) prize.

The family TV is changing from electronic hearth into aggressive probe, prying into closets of ordinary folk

But prize money is not just what these shows are about. “What drives reality shows is their immediacy,” says University of Calgary psychologist Gregory Fouts, a specialist in audience research. “They are like sporting events: you never know quite what is going to happen next.” And there’s the rub. Most of us, especially children, watch TV from our own “comfort zones,” Fouts explains. We can watch some pretty dramatic events knowing that in the end it is “just television,” just make-believe. Take away that safety net, make the action real and unpredictable, and the camera can unleash some pretty basic emotions, emotions that seem to ricochet through the viewing audience as impressionable viewers, at least, appear to absorb the tension by osmosis. “We saw a big increase in nightmares and other childhood traumas when the Gulf War was on TV night after night, Fouts says. “People can tell the difference between what is real and what is ‘just television.”

It is that unresolved tension that makes reality shows habit-forming, even the more benign ones. Tara Ariano, a 25-year-old Web page editor in Toronto, became hooked on MTV’s The RealWorld docu-soap while living in the United States and now has American friends send her the newest episodes, the ones that aren’t yet showing on Canadian cable channels. “It is terrible TV, but it is addictive,” says Ariano. “The cast is put together in a calculated manner, so you tune in every week to see who will clash with whom. I am only a bit older than the people on the show, so I can say, ‘Oh, they are so young and immature.’”

North Americans spend less time socializing than in the past and more behind our electronic walls, psychologists say. So reality shows become a way to experience real emotion vicariously. And for a generation that has grown up with television as a trusted babysitter there is no fear of the medium. There may even be a need for its approval: for some, life may not have meaning until they’ve actually been on TV.

That might have been Darva’s problem. A 34-year-old emergency room nurse from California, Darva Conger married 43-year-old Rick Rockwell, a former nightclub comic who claims to be a multimillionaire, on Feb. 15 before 22 million viewers—most of them in that hugely profitable TV demographic of women between the ages of 18 and 34. Rick was certainly into it. Within moments of selecting his bride he bounded on stage and planted a big wet one on her lips. But within a few days—if not hours—of the event, Conger realized she had made a huge mistake. She hit the talk-show circuit; then she filed for an annulment. Conger had signed contracts, received gifts and tried on the wedding gown in advance—experiencing both Cinderella make-believe and elements of real-life arranged marriages. But she said she never expected to actually have to go through with a marriage. She only did it as “a lark,” she said, “because it was a TV show.” (Epilogue: within a month of the show, Rockwell had embarked on a national “annulment tour,” trying to revive his comedy career. Conger, meanwhile, had been fired from her hospital job but was offered megabucks to pose nude in Penthouse magazine or write a book about her experiences. The lesson: “it’s only TV’ can have real-life repercussions.)

Bart, too, wants his life back, according to the few interviews he has given since the Dutch Big Brother ended (although he does have his own agent and charges for public appearances and interviews). When Bart Spring in ‘t Veld walked out of that Amsterdam house on Dec. 31—the eventual winner—he had become an instant celebrity, unable to stroll the streets in his own country without being mobbed. On its final night, nearly three-quarters of Dutch television sets were tuned to Big Brother. At one point in the middle of the show’s popularity, a two-metre barbed-wire fence and guard dogs were deployed to keep fans at bay. But celebrity may be a small price to pay: in Sweden, a cast member of an earlier Swedish version of the Survivor show committed suicide after his colleagues expelled him from the island.

Television has always been a powerful storyteller, and Reality TV is the purveyor of the richest of human tales—of love and rejection—in the age of the unblinking eye. But this is also the latest episode in TV’s own saga, the story of its rejection—after decades of unparalleled cultural dominance—in favor of a younger, more potent, more interactive medium: the Internet.

“Marshall McLuhan had this absolutely right,” says Arthur Kroker, a political scientist at Concordia University in Montreal and a McLuhan-like surveyor of the new media landscape. “This is what happens when an old medium is forced to confront a new one: it reverses itself and goes back to something old.” In this case, the something old is the fly-on-the-wall documentary, a genre Canadian filmmakers pioneered back in the 1960s; and the game show, a relic of the 1950s suddenly vaulted again into prime-time respectability. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is the most-watched show in the United States and Canada, with 29 million and 2.7 million viewers respectively (page 63). It eclipses the popular hospital drama ER most nights, though dramas and sit-coms still make up the lion’s share of prime time.

“This is television’s attempt to save itself,” says Kroker, “by marrying with the Internet and by no longer portraying the idealized version of family life or personal relations.” The prying eye, Kroker notes, helps fulfill “a necessary logic of civilization by helping choose scapegoats and victims”—something for people to talk about around the water cooler. But this is largely a phony reality, Kroker argues, dominated by car crashes and contrived events. For the most part, Reality Television is in fact Extreme TV— extreme weather, extreme accidents, pets that kill. “If you want real violence, you should see the Polish version of COPS,” says Kroker. “You kind of drift into these formats. They’re the product of a culture of indifference.”

And so, despite the fiasco of Fox’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, there are two other variations in the works for the fall season. One is to take place in Las Vegas, where couples about to marry will take a series of tests to determine if they are compatible; marriage counsellors and the audience will then vote to see if they should go through with their wedding plans. A New York station has developed a reality show, The Ex-Files, about six women and men who are hung up about past relationships and now get an opportunity to face up to ex-flames, years after the fact. A British show, Hotel Getaway, subjects 48 unwitting contestants to humiliation, and food and sleep deprivation, at a presumed luxury hotel run by actors posing as staff. Shades of Candid Camera? Not really. This show has an underlying nastiness, an air of comeuppance: the contestants have been led to believe they had won a luxury getaway.

In Canada, the major private networks, CTV and Global, are considering some of the more benign reality shows on the market but have no plans to carry the headline grabbers like Big Brother or Survivor—at least not yet. Next month is the preview and auction for the summer list, and anything can happen. “We’re keeping our options open,” says Doug Hoover, Global’s national vice-president for programming. “Right now, I don’t see these kinds of shows being a main staple of our diet.”

Still, few TV executives doubt that a new, voyeuristic genre has a foothold, particularly among the audience of the future. Cable-based Life Network, a subsidiary of the Toronto production house Alliance Atlantis Broadcasting, airs 14 hours of reality docu-soaps a week in prime time, and even the CBC is picking up two reality shows for next season, including one based on real-life operations at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children called Little Miracles. But these are kinder, gentler formats for the most part—considerate voyeurism, if you will. And there does seem to be a significant cultural divide. The U.S. networks commission shows like When Good Pets Go BadwEWe Canada produces Dogs with Jobs, a documentary series about working dogs.

For some people, life may not ave meaning until they have actually been on television

Most of the new generation of reality shows have a significant audience or Internet component, a first step, some say, towards eventual virtual-reality TV whereby viewers can inject themselves into a fantasy setting from the comfort of their own homes. The Internet is already chockablock with its own version of Reality TV—hundreds of sites with fixed Web cameras intended to capture any number of ordinary or profound occurrences. A woman gave birth on the Net once. A young couple once promised to film their first act of intercourse. In Cranbrooke, B.C., Richard Hollingsworth has Web-attached video cameras mounted in his living room, dining room, office and bedroom to show the life of an ordinary family man with five children who happens to be infected with the virus that causes AIDS. In a nod to decorum, viewing hours are posted daily. www.macleans.ca for links to other sites.

With fibre-optic cables the size of a human hair able to deliver a million channels of television concurrently, the future is wide open for anyone with a digital camera and a new idea. “What I don’t think has become clear to everyone is that the Internet will become television and radio,” Mark Starowicz, one of the CBC’s most senior producers, said in a recent lecture at Carleton University. But his take is that the Internet will evolve into a digital world increasingly divided into rich electronic neighborhoods and poor ones. Those who can afford it will be able to order up the best that television has to offer from the large Internet and entertainment conglomerates that are snapping up every bit of content they can lay their fingers on. Wealthy TV consumers, Starowicz predicts, will “acquire the liberty of print”: they will be able to program their sets to whatever they wish to see and peruse the cinematic vaults of the world at their leisure. Those in the electronically poor neighborhoods will have to make do with whatever’s on.

Whatever’s on, of course, does not necessarily have to be a Roman circus—just intimate. This fall, Life Network is planning to broadcast a 13-part series, produced by Montreal-based Cineflix, following 10 women of different ages, backgrounds and social situations through their pregnancies. Two-person camera crews will film the key events—the baby showers, the last day on the job, doctors’ visits. The producers may also give the women small cameras to record their own feelings in their private moments—video diaries, to be spliced into the story. “We always let the characters see the film before the final cut,” says Cineflix president Glen Salzman, a docu-soap specialist. “They can ask for changes. Usually they don’t or they just want something minor. The whole process is based on mutual trust and respect.” The participants in these documentaries are never called actors. Yet casting is important and can sometimes take up the lion’s share of the production time. Often, says Salzman, people like their intimate stories being told—“it seems to satisfy an inner need. Sometimes something happens while we’re filming and they tell us to go away. Sometimes it’s a healing process. The camera becomes a bit of a therapist.”

Look closely and Life’s cadre of reality shows can be seen as knockoffs of the popular dramas: emergency room documentaries are the real life equivalent of ER; real-life housemates mirror Friends. The distinctions blur on a broader scale as well. Are the winners at Millionaire any different from those lucky few who score, it seems daily, on a rip-roaring stock market? Are the survivors of Survivor or Big Brother of a different stripe than those who climb the greasy pole of business or public life, casting aside friends and former allies on the way to the top? TV imitating real life, or TV imitating itself? All that can be said for sure is that Big Brother is watching. And he’s sitting on your couch.