Art & Commerce: Consumer Republic

The new mantra for TV: “Think globally. Act locally”
CBS is pinning its hopes for the summer on a Dutch show. The American TV network reportedly paid $20 million for Big Brother, the ratings phenom of Dutch TV’s fall season. Big Brother, for which ABC, Fox and the USA Network also competed, is an existential game show with an irresistibly creepy premise.
Nine or 10 strangers are holed up in a house for 100 days. They are not allowed contact with the outside world. Every hothouse interaction, every toilet flush is captured by cameras and microphones and broadcast. At intervals, participants are invited to leave (in the CBS version they are winnowed out by audience vote). The last standing wins a prize.
Even the show’s Dutch producer admits the concept is “rather cruel.” Still, in the Netherlands this spectacle won an average share of 27-plus and drew zillions to the companion Web site. The climactic final episode attracted over half the population.
As the multilingual Dutch might say, “Big Brother, c’est moi.” CBS’ Big Brother gambit is a not-so-subtle attempt to duplicate ABC’s crushing success with Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, our version of a U.K. hit.
We think of “globalization” as a euphemism for “Americanization,” but the tide can flow both ways. However much you want to punch the next person who asks you, “Final answer?” or dread the arrival of Big Brother, these imports seem a fair exchange for years of exporting Baywatch and Sly Stallone movies.
Of course, American television has borrowed from abroad for decades, particularly from our British cousins. Sometimes, producers revamp the originals to make them suitable for American consumption. In other cases, Americans have embraced shows such as Masterpiece Theater and Absolutely Fabulous precisely because they’re so inimitably British.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is something else again. It is a concept without a country. Although the American version has its own
flavor–no other culture could produce Regis Philbin–the show did not need translation. It pushes buttons that exist across national borders.
I have to laugh when pundits try to explain what the show’s success says about America. Although it’s a critic’s job to pretend otherwise, the show reveals nothing special about any country. It’s an idea that embodies the clichƒ “Think globally, act locally.” Who wants to be a millionaire? Everyone.
In the same way, Big Brother is not Dutch. It’s not even original. Americans have tasted the delights of “reality” television before, starting with MTV’s The Real World. CBS has also been developing Survivor, slated for the summer, in which strangers are transported to Borneo, where they struggle to survive under the camera’s eye and the fittest wins the fabulous cash bonanza.
These game-show scenarios cut to the heart of the social contract, one in which human beings balance the need for cooperation with an individual’s desire to win. Anybody can play, and everybody is enough of a voyeur to want to watch. It’s the human condition with commercial breaks.
Come to think of it, we should add the star of the PBS schedule, The Antiques Road Show, to the list of one-world entertainments. It’s a copy of another British original in which Joe and Jane Schmo bring their heirlooms and tchotchkes to be evaluated by experts, a game show of a different sort. It has winners, losers and valuable prizes–except the giddy participants already own the prize.
Just the other night I saw a pair of sisters weep like Queen for a Day contestants when they learned the Tiffany lamp mom bought for $125 was worth $80,000 to $125,000. On the air in the U.K. for over 20 years, Road Show has spawned versions all over the world. After all, who doesn’t have junk in the attic?
What we are seeing is the rise of borderless TV; it doesn’t reflect national character but the participatory, consumercentric tastes increasingly characteristic of the planet. Start with a game, stock it with people just like us, whoever “us” happens to be, and turn on the camera.
With the coming of Big Brother, we who invented The Jerry Springer Show cannot claim the lowest common denominator is getting lower. But it certainly is getting wider.