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'Big Brother' looks for big ratings

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first thing Paul Romer, the executive producer of "Big Brother," wants viewers to know is that his new "reality" series premiering tonight on CBS is not "The Truman Show" and he is not Christoff, the beret-wearing, television producer-Svengali played by Ed Harris in that film.

"The big difference between 'The Truman Show' and 'Big Brother' is that 'The Truman Show' was fiction, and 'Big Brother' is real," Romer said in a telephone conference call to promote the series that puts 10 strangers in a house for three months and lets us play peeping tom via 28 cameras and 60 microphones.

"We feel thoroughly responsible for the well-being of the 10 people in the house," he added. "So, we the producers are here to help the 10 houseguests make it through the three months that they will be in the house. We are not there to torture them like Christoff, which, by the way, I tried to find a beret, but couldn't."

Ha, ha, ha. What a wit Romer is.

In May, when I first wrote about the shows of Reality Summer, I was hoping against hope that viewers would not go crazy over it because it was so clearly an attempt by CBS to see how low it could go in cost and taste and still find an audience.

Ha, ha, ha. What an idiot I am.

And so here we are in high summer headed for an orgy of reality programming tonight starting at 8 on CBS with "Survivor" and rolling straight into "Big Brother" at 9. The audience will probably be one of the largest summertime audiences in years for any two hours of network programming. Furthermore, based on demographics for "Survivor" so far, there are going to be lots of younger viewers in their teens and 20s, a demographic that makes advertisers swoon.

But that doesn't mean we all have to uncritically embrace the genre and each new offering that arrives.

Start with Romer saying "Big Brother" is real, while "The Truman Show," which starred Jim Carrey as a man whose birth and life was the basis of a reality television show watched by millions, is not.

"Big Brother" takes 10 strangers carefully selected by Romer and CBS and puts them in a house built at CBS' Studio City in Los Angeles. The 10 - all in their 20s, 30s or 40s - must stay in the house 89 days during which time their every move and word will be recorded. Viewers will be able to watch five nights a week on CBS and around-the-clock on America Online. Every two weeks, those in the house nominate two of their members for expulsion, with viewers voting one of the two out via a 900-telephone number. This goes on until there is only person left in the house when the show ends its run on Sept. 30. That person will receive $500,000.

Studio City, for those who have not been there, is a sterile-looking, flat, sun-bleached white series of studios, soundstages and offices owned by CBS to house its West Coast television operations. On that lot, the network built a prefabricated, suburban-looking, 1,800-square-foot house with a swimming pool and populated it with all those cameras, tape recorders, furniture from Ikea and 10 people who fit a certain demographic profile.

If there is anything "real" about this setup, I'm the Archbishop of Canterbury. But this is what passes for reality in Voyeur America these days.

As to the claim that viewers will see everything - a bit of Romer hype published in "TV Guide" among other places - that is not exactly the case either, according to Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS Television, and Joe Redling Jr., a vice president of America Online. In fact, viewers will be getting a very heavily edited version of reality that will not take them into the bathroom or the bedroom at night and is in no way going to be live even online.

"Yes, the television show is edited. So, it's not going to be live," Moonves said. "It's going to [air] within 24 hours of when it was filmed, but it won't be live and it will maintain our normal standards."

And those network TV standards will also determine what goes online because AOL will be getting the feed of images it "streams" from the CBS control room.

"There will be delay and screening of the online content as the control room of CBS goes through all the cameras in the house and determines what will be routed to our streaming service. There will be no profanity or nudity at all," Redling said.

"For example, there are cameras in the bathroom, but that's not to show people going to the bathroom. It's to prevent meetings from taking place in that site," Moonves added.

Once each day, each of the members will have to go into the Red Room alone and talk via microphones to one of the 10 story editors in the control room who, like Christoff in "The Truman Show," watch them constantly and craft the narrative of their lives that we will see in 30-minute segments. Thus, there are 10 voices of Big Brother heard occasionally, as well as a single narrator's voice that will also be heard throughout the telecasts.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, CBS viewers will be offered 30-minute versions of the previous days' events edited by the story editors. Romer compares these telecasts to "soap opera." There is no "Big Brother" on Wednesday because the night belongs to "Survivor."

The program returns each Thursday with a one-hour live studio show in which experts, guests and others will discuss the events of the week inside the house. Friday, it's back to the 30 minutes of soap opera format. Saturday, it's an hour, one-half of which is recycled clips from earlier telecasts in the week again selected by the all-powerful story editors.

Romer's claim that he and the other producers-story editors are there only "to help" the 10 people living in the house isn't exactly true either. Like the other reality shows of summer - "Survivor" and PBS' "The 1900 House" - "Big Brother" inflicts various forms of deprivation on those in the house to stir things up.

Sure there's a swimming pool, which has been added to give U.S. viewers some flesh to look at, but the 10 will have to grow their own vegetables, tend chickens, bake their own bread and live without such modern staples as washing machines, microwaves, newspapers, radio, telephone or television. Some who are not good at making do might even run out of food.

Romer denies the idea behind such deprivation is the same as poking a caged bear with a stick or rerouting the maze to see how confused and angry the rats can get.

"This show is all about the group process and human interaction, and all those rules are there to make sure interaction starts as soon as they are in the house. The reason for no telephone and such is so that the people in the house are confronted with their own performance within the group. This show is about real emotions. We want to see the real people, the real emotions," Romer insisted.

And, if you buy all that, there's one last thing Romer wants you to know: There's nothing negative about Big Brother, despite George Orwell's prophetic nightmare vision of a totalitarian government that monitors its citizens 24 hours a day just the way network television has us peeping on the people in its reality shows.

"I don't see using the title 'Big Brother' having any negative relation to the book by Orwell," Romer said. "I think the title explains exactly what the show is about, and everybody who sees the show understands that it does not have the same negative influence as the book."

Such is the state of reality on network television in the summer of 2000.

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