Oh (big) Brother

Is CBS's "Big Brother" the first TV show that actually works better online?

I ask myself this as I stare at the shaky video stream on bigbrother2000.com, the official Web site of television’s latest, strangest “reality-based” program.

"Big Brother" locks 10 strangers in a cramped house for three months. But unlike the TV show – which airs an amazing five nights a week – the Web version is connected 24/7. It's all voyeur vision, all the time.

Last night I watched the show's broadcast TV debut. Filled with smarmy interviews and quick-cut editing, it was ponderous, even boring. But as I gaze at my browser, I'm fascinated by the Web site's raw video feeds. The show's hapless characters are getting to know each other in the kitchen. There's awkward conversation. Long periods of dead air. And the camera never cuts to commercial.

I'm instantly hooked.

Produced by America Online, the Big Brother site features four separate Web cams so you can choose which angle to leer from. There are cameras in the bedrooms, the bathroom, and even the shower. It's a proven formula – the original Big Brother series first aired in Europe, where the Internet edition became an instant hit. Addicted Web users were glued to their browsers nearly all day. They'd chat together in real time and post hourly updates for those who might have missed someone going to the toilet or flossing their teeth.

I decide to leave the Big Brother Web cam on all day.

I watch the clan's first morning in the manufactured homestead, likely a low-key event compared to last night's hourlong prime-time television debut. Right now, they're fixing breakfast.

"If someone's on the Internet, they're seeing us right now," notes Karen, a mother of four and clearly the most domestically talented of the group. She's chopping up vegetables and fixing omelets. Unlike previous vérité entertainment offerings such as MTV's "Real World," these people aren't all twentysomething hotties. Even so, I can"t help but look.

Actually, the Web has always been about voyeurism (defined by old man Webster as "one obtaining sexual gratification from seeing ... sexual acts"). Witness the Net's ubiquitous porn sites and countless Web cams. In fact, the infamous Voyeurdorm.com recently filed suit against CBS, saying the network stole the "Big Brother" idea from them. (Voyeurdorm's users pay to ogle barely dressed young women who lounge around a bland suburban homestead.)

But CBS says that's nonsense: "Big Brother" is different. And they're right: This is really a game show. Every two weeks, viewers vote a member of the house off the program. The last remaining person wins half a million dollars. Interestingly, its TV time slot competition, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," has a similar voyeuristic component based on rooting for just one person to win.

I click back over to the Big BrotherCam. It's after breakfast now. Josh – the jock of the group – is washing dishes with Jordan, the young and pretty triathlete. "I think I overused the soap," she says. The show's producers want the residents to conserve: Food and supplies are rationed heavily.

"Don't worry," jokes Josh. "No one's watching."

I wonder why this contest must be so ... competitive. Just because the house has no television sets, radios or even Internet connections doesn't mean these people are destitute. They've got a garden, a flock of chickens, even a compost heap. And nobody has to get up for work in the morning. Sounds like sustainable simple living to me.

I fantasize about what I would do if I were stuck in that house. I'd suggest a rebellion to prove those cynical network execs wrong. We'd tend the garden. Eat only our share. Sing songs. Refuse to kick anybody out. We'd prove 10 people can live happily together without technology.

And then we’ll split the prize money.

But I'm also thinking something else: I want someone to get naked. But it never happens. Even online, the camera cuts away to another room.

I surf over to Usenet for some real-time viewer commentary. One early addict named Rico laments that “Even the online feeds are censored. They use a 45-second delay.” But for some reason, profanity makes it through: “We got to clean all this shit out of the pool,” notes George, the house’s oldest member.

Just then my friend Alex calls. He was raised in the former Soviet Union. I tell him what I’m watching. “You better turn back now,” he says, deadly serious. “That kind of TV is not good for you ... or anyone.”

I protest: I’m not watching television ... I’m surfing the Web. Besides, these people have a chance to get rich, so they’re volunteering to be watched. What’s the big deal?

But something’s still bothering me. I search for the Big Brother application form, the one each contestant filled out months ago. I find it, hidden away on an obscure page the show’s producers may not realize still exists.

"In the event that the show is cancelled, producers ... have no obligation to award any prize money," it says in tiny type.

Ah, true public humiliation.

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