Of all the cultural phenomena we might have borrowed from Europe--legal red-light districts, the siesta, pretty money--we get this. Sixteen men and women maroon themselves for as long as 39 days on an isolated tropical island, building driftwood huts and lunching on rats. Meanwhile, 10 folks agree to spend as long as three months sequestered, sleeping in communal bedrooms and living without TV or newspapers in a house that lacks only pencil shavings on the floor to qualify as a human hamster cage--all for cash prizes, under constant camera surveillance for a prime-time audience.
This is where a reference to The Truman Show would go--except that the movie got it wrong. It assumed that a man would have to be enslaved to live life in front of a camera. As the CBS reality series Survivor and Big Brother--adaptations of wildly successful European shows--demonstrate, people will jump at the chance. All it takes is a shot at cash and the promise of fame.
Survivor (May 31, 8 p.m. E.T.), an adaptation of a Swedish hit, drew 6,000 applications and videotapes, says executive producer Mark Burnett. The 16 chosen, ages 22 to 72, left home this spring to build an island society on Pulau Tiga, off the coast of Malaysian Borneo. With minimal supplies and few rules--no violence, no cutting down trees--they worked together to build huts, carry water from wells and find food (only rice and beans were provided; they fished and caught the rats for protein).
Except when they were working against one another. If MTV's The Real World taught us anything, it's that people are most engrossing making love or war. War's easier, so conflict was built in; castaways were selected for "strong personalities" (read: potential clashes), and they periodically voted to expel members. The last one left--picked by expelled players--wins $1 million. As for love, Burnett suspects that some contestants snuck away for a little vine swingin'. But, he says, "we were more interested in relationships in how they affected the group." Uh-huh. Judging by a preview shown to advertisers last week, the producers were after sparks and heat: the survivors are shown bickering, frolicking in bikinis and hanging their underwear on co-ed clotheslines.
Less atavistic but in its way more chilling is Dutch export Big Brother (making its debut July 6, 8 p.m. E.T.), which turns its participants into an ant farm. Stuck in an 1,800-sq.-ft. house with cameras everywhere (yes, including the bathroom), they'll be on TV five nights a week--and on the Internet 24/7. They'll also be whittled off, by an audience vote, one at a time until a winner claims $500,000.
Spy TV turns its viewers into gods. "You watch people's most intimate moments," says New York University media-ecology professor Mark Crispin Miller, "and relish the illusion of deciding life and death." But the characters are unpredictable. That's the danger. Fox had a smash with voyeuristic bridal contest Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? only to forswear future versions when the groom was found to have once been charged with assaulting a girlfriend. CBS's participants had rigorous psychological and physical screenings and background checks--said CBS-TV president Leslie Moonves after Fox's debacle: "I want grade-school diplomas"--but Survivor took a p.r. hit when an alumnus was charged with child abuse after coming home (he denies the allegation).