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Reality and Voyeurism Heading to Summer TV

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The major networks are finally making good on a long-standing pledge to provide more original summer programming--although many of the programs in question will be an odd mix of MTV’s cinema verite “The Real World” with voyeuristic elements seemingly plucked from the nightmare world of the fantasy feature “The Truman Show.”

The latest, and perhaps most provocative, entry in this genre is “Big Brother,” a Dutch project that confines 10 strangers in a house for 100 days, monitoring their every move with 24 cameras and 59 microphones.

CBS has committed to airing 50 hours of the program, which will be shown at least five nights a week beginning in July. The network, which won rights to the series--a huge hit in Holland quickly spreading across Europe--after a bidding contest among several networks, had previously announced plans to air another European “reality” show this summer, “Survivor.” That series documents the activity of a group of people stranded on an island near Borneo.

This infusion of so-called reality programs not only ups the ante on voyeurism but reflects a concerted effort to provide fresh summer fare after years of lip-service to the idea, including grand announcements that were later abandoned.

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The key development to jump-start the process has been the explosive popularity of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which ABC introduced last August with an experimental run on 13 consecutive nights.

ABC has also enjoyed success, albeit on a lesser scale, with “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” an improvisational comedy that made its debut in the summer. And the network is likely to launch “Mastermind"--a new quiz concept under the stewardship of “Millionaire” producer Michael Davies--next summer, perhaps during the same August window that proved such a blessing for the existing show.

In similar fashion, Fox has announced plans for a concert series and is developing a documentary program that could air multiple nights each week, in which a camera crew chronicles the daily goings-on in a high school. Fox is describing the concept as a “reality drama.”

“As long as I’ve been in American television, people have been talking about how it’s crazy not to put on original programming during the summer,” said Davies, a native of England, adding that success of “Millionaire” has “given people no excuse not to go and do it.”

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Networks have long relied on second runs of programs in the spring or summer as a vital part of their economic equation, since the fee paid to producers covers two airings and programmers seldom make a profit on the first showing.

Still, programmers have discovered there is considerable risk in freeing viewers to sample splashy cable movies and series during those months, as well as potential value in using summer as a laboratory, provided the programs themselves are inexpensive enough to justify production, similar to the model followed on cable.

Some executives have argued that expensive series such as “ER,” “NYPD Blue” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” remain the best way for the major networks to command viewer loyalty and define themselves, in part because such offerings aren’t readily available on cable channels, whereas game shows, quirky reality series and movies are.

The astonishing ratings for “Millionaire,” however, have dealt all conventional logic a setback--attracting audiences that exceed “ER” at a fraction of its cost and for considerably less than most dramas and sitcoms.

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“The old rules are all very, very different from what they used to be,” said CBS Television President Leslie Moonves at a press conference Thursday announcing the deal on “Big Brother.”

What the game shows and these avant-garde reality series have in common is the allure of watching real people in action as opposed to scripted drama. Davies has accused the TV industry of “dreadful snobbery” toward such reality fare, suggesting “Millionaire” captured the public’s imagination in part because it functions as a real-life drama.

“Normal people in not normal situations,” explained John de Mol, who created the Dutch series and is overseeing the U.S. version, summarizing the program’s appeal. “It’s very interesting to see how they handle that. . . . Reality, with real people, obviously interests a big audience.”

Such programs also raise troubling questions about how far such programs can be taken--the degree of humiliation, danger or at the very least bad decision-making people can be encouraged to endure in pursuit of fame and fortune. Fox, for example, plans to wed one of 50 women to a man she has never met before in a prime-time special, “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire,” scheduled for later this month.

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In regard to “Big Brother” and “Survivor,” Moonves insisted CBS and the producers would take the necessary precautions to ensure the mental and physical health of participants, who will be denied any contact with the outside world.

“We’re not trying to torture anybody,” he said. “We don’t want anybody to leave here and go to Bellevue.”

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“As long as I’ve been in American television, people have been talking about how it’s crazy not to put on original programming during the summer.”

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MICHAEL DAVIES, “Millionaire” producer


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