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Are We ‘Truman’?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Part cautionary tale, part satire, “The Truman Show” conjures a media world in which 5,000 hidden cameras invade a man’s privacy and beam every facet of his “real life” to the world as mass entertainment.

Sound futuristic? Hardly. In fact, the camera is already watching. In a very real sense, the only difference between the unwitting Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) and the people you see on any number of reality-based TV shows--from Fox’s “Cops” to HBO’s “Taxicab Confessions” to MTV’s “The Real World"--is a signed consent form.

Of course, that’s a pretty important difference, given existing laws against secretly taping another person for commercial use when a reasonable expectation of privacy exists. Seen in that light, Truman’s exit line to the messianic “televisionary” Christof (Ed Harris)--"Good afternoon, good evening and good night"--could include the tag line, “and you’ll be hearing from my lawyers.”

But if the premise of “The Truman Show” is the legally reckless stuff of fiction, the technology that makes the scenario possible is already in use, stoking a lucrative reality-as-entertainment business.

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After all, local newscasts nightly feature police chases captured by sophisticated surveillance equipment aboard helicopters miles away (at times showing us too much reality, as in last month’s suicide on a freeway); sports broadcasts offer heretofore unseen vantage points through the use of “catcher-cams” and “goalie-cams.” And, in the case of a show like “Taxicab Confessions,” “lipstick cameras” are placed in cabs to capture titillating tidbits from the lives of unsuspecting late-night riders.

Similarly, “The Truman Show” is delivered to the masses daily with hidden cameras (one in Truman’s ring, another in his wife’s necklace) and strategically placed devices like the “buoy cam,” which monitors Truman offshore should he try to escape his TV world.

To some, then, the most provocative aspect of “The Truman Show” is not how thoroughly Big Brother can watch us but how the home viewers in the film blithely peer in at Truman’s life, never stopping to consider their own complicity in the grand manipulation.

“People now think they have the right to see and observe everything,” says Joshua Meyrowitz, a communications professor at the University of New Hampshire and the author of “No Sense of Place,” a book about how electronic media have blurred the line between public and private realms.

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“There’s a presumption of intimacy now that people feel with regard to leaders and others. There’s a sense that if you can see it, you should be allowed to. As if the technology gives you the right.”

Presumably, those offering themselves as guinea pigs for a show like “The Real World” don’t lose much sleep about the eroding boundary between public and private realms. The MTV docu-soap opera, which begins its seventh season at 10 tonight, this time set in Seattle, finds seven Generation X-ers, puts them in a house or apartment rife with cameras and microphones, and then waits for the real-life conflicts to unfold, the directors watching from a control room equipped with 15 monitors.

Cast-member hopefuls have to fill out a 14-page application that probes for intimate details from their personal lives, psychic baggage that the producers hope will provide a payoff when the cameras are rolling.

“We want to be convinced that they will be able to survive a very stressful, intensive, potentially paranoia-inducing experience,” says Jon Murray, the show’s co-executive producer, of the extensive screening process.

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No one says, “Cue the sun!” to alert the cast that they should wake up. But just like Seahaven, the fake town in which Truman lives, “The Real World” creates a suspiciously idyllic environment--a trendy loft or apartment--in which the subjects are constantly watched, the viewers turned into voyeurs and eavesdroppers. Though they use black-and-white surveillance cameras, Murray points out that, unlike Truman’s world, “Real World” spy-cams are only placed in common areas like hallways, while most of the action is recorded by on-set cameramen.

“The most important distinction here is that people who are being shot know they’re being shot,” Murray says.

The modus operandi is a bit different on shows like “Cops” and “Taxicab Confessions,” however, which shoot first and ask for permission later (“Cops” obscures subjects’ faces if written permission cannot be obtained, while “Taxicab Confessions” returns the tapes to the subjects, says HBO).

“But most people will sign releases because ‘Cops’ is a part of pop culture,” says John Langley, that show’s executive producer, adding that “everybody wants 15 minutes of fame,” even when that fame is for being arrested.

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“We’ve had people object to the cameras before they know it’s us,” Langley says. “Go figure.”

Not everyone, however, has been happy to be used as Truman-esque fodder.

Two weeks ago, the California Supreme Court ruled that a Palos Verdes woman could sue Group W Productions for using her as an unwitting star of a now-defunct reality TV show called “On Scene: Emergency Response.”

In the episode, rescue units responded to an accident in which Ruth Shulman was left pinned under her car, her legs sticking out. Not only was Shulman under the gaze of the camera, but a flight nurse wore a tiny microphone that recorded Shulman begging the nurse to let her die.

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The show went too far, the court ruled, in gathering material for the “entertainment of casual viewers.”

While the decision was aimed at reality TV shows, the court’s ruling also had implications for the news media, where 1st Amendment protections face increasing challenges from lawsuits that target surreptitious news-gathering techniques, even when the story has a compelling public interest.

“One of the most active areas in litigation right now is on news-gathering tactics of the press,” says Steve Solomon, a professor of journalism at New York University and a lawyer specializing in 1st Amendment issues. “It’s sort of a growth industry for lawyers.”

A growth industry fueled in part by public sentiment, if a landmark jury verdict last year against ABC is any indication.

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In the case, a North Carolina jury awarded $5.5 million to the Food Lion supermarket chain after an undercover, hidden-camera report on ABC’s “PrimeTime Live” revealed the market sold tainted meat and fish to customers (on appeal, the award was reduced to $315,000).

What that verdict showed, says Solomon, is that the public can be a lot more forgiving about hidden camera work in the name of entertainment like “The Truman Show” than in the name of public safety.

Indeed, far from feeling turned off by the increasingly invasive aspects of TV entertainment, people are eager to get in on the act.

Mary-Ellis Bunim, co-executive producer of “The Real World,” admits as much in discussing how attitudes toward her show have changed since its inaugural season in New York.

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“Can you imagine approaching people on the subway and saying, ‘How would you like to live in front of cameras 18 hours a day, seven days a week?’ People thought we were nuts.”

But seven years later, an estimated 14,000 people volunteered to be subjects for the Seattle “Real World” and “The Real World” spinoff show, “Road Rules.”

“For people our age, a lot of what goes on isn’t talked about [on TV],” says Lindsey Brian, 21, a “Real World” cast member. “This is the perfect situation to see how real people interact with each other.”

On the Internet, meanwhile, the Truman-esque Jennifer Ringley uploads daily photographs of her twentysomething Washington, D.C., life and calls it “JenniCam.” People can subscribe to daily doses of her life for $15 a year--paying, in essence, to be her friend.

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Or “media friend,” as University of New Hampshire professor Meyrowitz refers to the collection of strangers--from the late Princess Diana to Jenni herself--who magically become our intimates, with no strings attached.

“Most people’s relationships with media friends outlast their relationships with live friends,” says Meyrowitz. “Unlike spouses and kids, media friends don’t demand anything of you. They tend to be more appealing.”


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