There is nowhere to escape the cameras. There is nowhere you can't be seen," says Martin, a 33-year-old air conditioner salesman from Spijkenisse near Rotterdam, reflecting on life under the watchful eyes of Big Brother. The Orwellian echoes are appropriate: Martin was one of the contestants--or "house guests," as the producer prefers to call them--on Big Brother, the hit Dutch TV show in which nine people began a 100-day odyssey confined in a camera-equipped house having their every move and murmur broadcast on television and the Internet. Part fly-on-the-wall documentary, part real-life soap opera and part social experiment, the Big Brother formula has proved such a success that spin-offs are popping up across Europe and in the U.S. Not everybody, however, is amused.
Kurt Beck, premier of Rhineland-Palatinate and head of the broadcasting commission for German states, recently attacked Big Brother, saying it was idiotic and that it "violated the dignity of man." Beck called on his commission to ban the program, a version of which starts on the German station rtl ii on March 1. Despite the premier's criticism, rtl ii has no intention of pulling its version of the Dutch show. "We don't think that the show violates human rights or human dignity," says rtl ii spokesman Matthias Trenkle. "The show is not violating any law."
Beck would no doubt agree with the Dutch Institute of Psychologists' condemnation of the show as "irresponsible and unethical" voyeurism. But other psychologists, such as Marianne LaFrance of Yale University, are more concerned by how the winner is chosen. To win, participants must be the sole remaining resident of the house. After periodic nominations by the "house guests" themselves, TV and Internet viewers--who watch the stories unfold thanks to the presence of 59 cameras (some infrared) and 24 microphones--decide who stays and who goes. "Social psychologists have long known that rejection by one's peers is one of the more traumatizing experiences that one can encounter," says LaFrance. "That worries me more than the privacy issue."
For the Dutch producers Big Brother was a commercial bonanza. The show's companion website registered a staggering 52 million hits over the 100 days the show was broadcast, and the final TV episode was the most-watched program in the Netherlands last year. John de Mol, chairman of Endemol Entertainment, the creators of Big Brother, believes he's just giving people what they want. "There is a certain level of voyeurism in every person," he says. "This program fulfills that need."
Bart Spring in 't Veld, the 23-year-old former professional soldier who won the $120,000 Big Brother prize, thinks the Germans are making a big fuss over nothing. "Real privacy you keep inside your head," he says. However, he does feel--and he claims other contestants share this view--that "many things had been manipulated" on the show, creating an impression that didn't necessarily match reality. For example, when he watched recordings of the series, Bart felt that the editing exaggerated some of the heated exchanges with his housemates. "The general impression was that I couldn't get along with two or three of the other people in the house," Bart recalls. "What they didn't broadcast was that within five minutes we usually made up." False impressions aside, many of the Big Brother "guests" have gone on to fame--of a sort--and fortune. Bart is now one of the Netherlands' biggest celebrities; his on-air girlfriend Sabine and another female contestant, Tara, have appeared in the Dutch edition of Playboy; and Martin, if not hugely famous, is selling more air conditioners than before.
Endemol Entertainment has received its share of fame and fortune, too. The firm's stock tripled in value over the course of the series, no doubt one of the main reasons that the formula is spreading so fast. Big Brother clones have been launched in the U.K. and Portugal, while in the U.S. cbs picked up the show for an estimated $20 million. Endemol is taking the show on the road with The Bus, a Big Brother on wheels that debuts this week in the Netherlands. Until June 2, 11 young people will travel around the country in a double-decker bus--all 11 sharing the same bed. Once again television and Internet viewers will select their favorites, and the group then decides which of the three least popular to expel. The last person to leave the bus gets prize money, perhaps as much as $450,000, which is linked to viewing figures. As "reality" TV takes off, it's clear that the stars of shows like Big Brother and The Bus will have to endure a lot for their fleeting 15 minutes of fame.
With reporting by Charles P. Wallace/Berlin