The unsung prophet of reality television


There is only one person in Hollywood hot enough these days to give the green light to a new television show at CBS, and it's not Les Moonves, the network's president.

It's not even Sumner Redstone, the chairman of the new CBS-Viacom media behemoth.

No, the only one with the juice to move mountains on CBS prime time is Jeremy Bentham.

I know what you're thinking: Isn't he that kid with glasses on "SportsNight"? Not exactly. Bentham is a British philosopher who's been dead for 168 years. He was the father of utilitarianism, a school of thought that advocated "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" of people -- a cute concept that quickly gets ugly in the details.

Bentham's fingerprints are all over "Survivor," the network's first, and highly successful, foray into "reality TV." After all, when the contestants on the tropical island show meet at the conclusion to each week's episode to exile one of their peers, what does that represent other than the triumph of the many over the one?

But the name "Big Brother" comes from George Orwell's nightmarish "Nineteen Eighty-Four," where a totalitarian state spies on its citizens' every move. So what the heck does Bentham have to do the new show?

Everything, as it turns out.

It was back in 1791 that Bentham offered his vision of a utopian residential community that would promote virtuous living, called the "Panopticon." Residents there would inhabit a large, crescent-shaped building, with the rooms facing inward. At all times, a leader would be able to see into any room from his perch at the center of the complex.

One more thing: The Panopticon was a prison.

In seeking to reform the brutal conditions of the time, Bentham was trying to put the concept of penitence back in penitentiaries. His notion was to replace an all-seeing and all-knowing God with a different all-seeing authority -- the Inspector.

"The essence of it consists ... in the centrality of the Inspector's situation, combined with the well known and most effectual contrivances for seeing without being seen," Bentham wrote.

Sound familiar?

On "Big Brother," 10 residents who accept a three-month term are sealed off from the outside world in a two-bedroom house constructed on a CBS lot in Southern California. Sixty microphones and 28 video cameras dot the entire house -- some of them visible, many of them hidden. Nowhere -- including the bathroom and bedroom -- is off-limits to the CBS eye.

As the French cultural historian Michel Foucault wrote several years ago about the Pantopticon scheme:

"Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at, at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so."

Of course, CBS doesn't want you to think that the confining house in any way imprisons its residents.

"What you're about to see is real; no scripts, no actors, and no second takes," Julie Chen, the chirpy newsreader who served as the show's master of ceremonies, said Wednesday night during the debut. "They're not coming to prison, folks -- they can voluntarily leave, but they can't walk back in."

Maybe it's not a prison, exactly. But it does sound suspiciously like a Panopticon, which, Bentham said, would provide a popular spectacle for the masses.

"It will supply in their instance the place of that great and constant fund of entertainment to the sedentary and vacant in towns, the looking out of the window. The scene, though a confined, would be a very various, and therefore perhaps not altogether an unamusing one."

Sounds like a television pitch from the 18th century.

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