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CBS flies without a net

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES - Thanks to the phenomenal success of "Survivor," ratings are going up, up, up for CBS this summer. But network executives spent much of the weekend here defending themselves against accusations that "Survivor" and their other omnipresent reality series, "Big Brother," are driving broadcast standards down, down, down while contributing to a meanness in American culture.

"OK, 'Big Brother' is a very controversial show. We knew it was a controversial show before we put it on the air this summer," Leslie Moonves, president and chief executive officer of CBS Television, said in meeting with reporters gathered in Pasadena for the summer press tour.

"But we wanted to try something different during the summer," he continued. "I'm not going to apologize for this show. It's an experiment. We are in uncharted territories. I'm glad we are. There may be things we might do differently a year from now - I don't know.

"But, right now, we're on a high wire without a net. It's very scary. It's very exciting. The results have been phenomenal for 'Survivor,' and very good for 'Big Brother' in terms of ratings. People are writing about CBS who never wrote before. Some of it's positive, some of it isn't. We get that. It's very controversial, but I'm proud of our record."

What Moonves can rightfully be proud of is the incredible commercial success of "Survivor," which will command Super Bowl-like advertising rates for its finale on Aug 23 - $600,000 for 30 seconds of air time, according to the CBS president.

In trying to squeeze every last dollar he can out of the South Pacific island castaways, Moonves announced a one-hour town hall meeting with all 16 survivors has been added to the CBS prime-time schedule for Aug. 23. He also told critics that a debut date has been set for "Survivor 2: The Australian Outback," - it will premiere right after the Super Bowl game ends in January.

But the cultural aspects of CBS' reality shows are more problematic, and network executives and producers of the series seemed downright defensive in their responses to questions that begged to be asked during press conferences with the producers and some of the contestants from the shows.

As was predicted in these pages on the day "Survivor" debuted, reality television would test us as an audience this summer in terms of how much public debasement we could watch before it started to make us queasy. As was said at the time, these are not shows designed to speak to our better angels.

The onscreen meltdown of Karen, the mom from Indiana in "Big Brother," and the spectacle of CBS news correspondent Julie Chen's questioning Karen's husband about his feelings at seeing his marriage shredded on national television while their four children watched, drew the most fire from critics.

"Am I troubled by it? I've thought about the children," Moonves said. "You know, though, this woman obviously had a need to do this [discuss intimate details of her loveless marriage]. If it didn't happen on the air, my guess is it would happen some way, some shape or some form. She's volunteered for the show. That's what the show is about. We're flying without a net on this one."

When asked later whether programmers have any "ethical responsibility" in such matters, Moonves said, "Do you have a responsibility for Karen opening up, talking about her marital problems. I don't believe that's the case, no."

"Survivor" had a similarly troubling moment two weeks ago when all but one of the remaining survivors received a videotape "letter" from their families. The one survivor who did not, Jenna Lewis, broke down in tears when told that her family failed to respond to the producers' request for a tape. The camera shamelessly exploited her anguish, moving in for and holding a close-up of her tear-streaked face.

The other matter that kept CBS executives on the defensive involved William Collins, the houseguest voted out of the "Big Brother" house last week. Shortly before his ouster, it was discovered that Collins had belonged to a group that espoused anti-Semitism - something CBS' highly publicized background checks had missed.

"We have spent well over $100,000 in background checks on these people," Moonves said as if it were an impressive amount. "Were things lost? Yes. Could it have been done better? Probably. I don't know how to do it better. We did double and triple checks."

Nancy Tellum, president for CBS Entertainment, added, "You certainly don't want anyone in the house that espouses hatred or violence. And certainly in our observations of the house, none of that took place."

The session that best suggested CBS' lack of responsibility and the way in which shows like "Big Brother" debase the culture featured Collins, who now insists on being addressed as Will Mega. CBS gave Collins a platform before the nation's press to indulge in a long-winded, loopy, surreal discourse that only he seemed to get. He compared his time in the "Big Brother" house to Malcolm X's time in prison, as CBS executive hung their heads in seeming embarassment at the back of the room.

Another troubling matter of standards involved a four letter word making it onto the air last week in a heated exchange between Collins, who is African-American, and Eddie, a white male houseguest. The show is being broadcast with a delay of several seconds - it is not truly live - but it is running so close to real time that responsible editing may not be possible.

"Obviously, when you're dealing with a live, reality show or a show as close to live as 'Big Brother' things are going to happen that you're not going to expect," Moonves said, again acknowledging that the network is making it up as it goes along.

If Moonves really believes networks have the right to "fly without a net" this way, then we are witnessing the start of a sea change in broadcasting ethics with converged giants like CBS-Viacom abrogating the traditional responsibility of broadcasters as gatekeepers.

But Moonves was having none of that, going so far as to joke off a question that began by reminding him that he advised President Clinton on broadcasting standards in several highly publicized White House summits.

"With Bill Clinton?" he said interrupting the question. "With Bill Clinton? You know, he's called me about a couple of people on 'Big Brother.' No, he hasn't. That's a joke. That's a joke."

Maybe the most damaging moment, though, came near the end of a news conference yesterday featuring Mark Burnett, the creator of "Survivor," and four of the survivors who had already been voted off.

After everybody on the dais said what a great and representative American program this is, Sonja Christopher, the ukelele-playing cancer-survivor who was the first to be voted off, offered a minority opinion: "I just hope this program doesn't teach young people in America that the way to win is to be duplicitous."

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