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Jewish World Review July 13, 2000 /11 Tamuz, 5760

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Consumer Reports

'Peeping Tom TV' exploits loneliness --
AMERICA'S PASSION for reality programming - more accurately designated as "Peeping Tom TV" - reached new lows with the grand premiere of Big Brother. At least Survivor, the national phenomenon that preceded the new show for its much-heralded opening last Wednesday night on CBS, offers the allure of a remote tropical island in the South China Sea, along with a contrived air of a Robinson Crusoe adventure.

What's so glamorous, however, about the setting for Big Brother - 1,800-square-foot house hastily assembled in the CBS parking lot in Studio City, Calif.? Television, it seems, has traveled all the way from Little House on the Prairie to Little House on the Parking Lot.

Nearly 2 million people live in the smoggy, middle-class San Fernando Valley, but how many of them see their lives as a scintillating adventure worthy of broadcast for five nights each week on a major television network?

It's the setup of Big Brother, not the setting, that intrigues Americans. We're simultaneously appalled and fascinated by the idea of 10 strangers forced to share two bedrooms and one bath, cut off from the world for 90 days while cameras monitor their every move and viewers vote to evict them, one by one. They may not feel forced to butcher rats in the grand Survivor tradition, but there's something even more daring, even more dangerous, about the forced intimacy in this new situation.

Most commentators emphasize the show's exploitation of the voyeur in all of us, its visceral connection to the deep-seated and eternal human urge to snoop. I believe that it takes advantage of a more worrisome desire in the contemporary psyche: our need to overcome an overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation. The situation of Big Brother - and all other "reality" shows for that matter - forces people to talk to one another.

The participants can't avoid intimate interaction.

For most of us, this is an exotic, profoundly adventurous idea, since we spend much of our time studiously avoiding precisely that sort of contact. Many Americans could now name and identify a dozen or more of the contestants on Survivor. But could you name and identify a dozen or more people who live on your own street?

Our current prosperity may have allowed new millions to achieve elements of the American Dream, but instead of guaranteeing our happiness, our material success too often has ensured our isolation. We strive for bigger homes, with bigger yards, higher fences - and, above all, more privacy. To afford these dream houses (and the comfortable cars that drive us to work in glorious solitude), we toil away for impossible hours and eagerly embrace two-career families - leaving less and less time for daily communication.

You've probably heard friends and neighbors complain of their exhaustion; at the same time they arrange similarly demanding schedules for their kids in the hopes of ensuring success for the next generation.

As youngsters rush from school to soccer practice, from karate class to crushing homework, from Boy Scouts to ballet, they become strangers to their parents. Even within our own homes, we tend toward separation - the latest studies suggest that nearly 60% of U.S. households have computers or TVs in the bedrooms - so that each family member can sit back and watch Big Brother all by himself.

The irony in all of this is both painful and obvious. We tune in to watch programs such as Big Brother that show us the raw, emotional, intense, messy, irresistible, daily human interaction that we seldom experience ourselves - in part because we're so busy watching Big Brother.

Recent figures from the Department of Education suggest that the average American child between the ages of 2 and 18 spends 1,500 hours a year watching television. That same child spends an average of 75 hours a year speaking with parents.

No wonder we feel so powerfully attracted to artificial situations in which various characters in ridiculously close quarters must talk and compete and negotiate without interruption or escape.

The only bright side of Peeping Tom TV involves the possibility that such programming might inspire some constructive imitation in real life.

Imagine the benefits if every family spent a few hours each week recreating the radical ground rules of Big Brother: no contact with outsiders, no cross-town appointments, no phone calls, no e-mail, no television, no avoiding face-to-face contact and conversation with the other members of the household. As a matter of fact, some Mormons already practice such restrictions with their "family home evenings" on Monday nights. My Mormon friends tell me that few rituals of their faith help more substantially in nourishing the bonds of family life.

By the same token, religious Jews have incorporated elements of the Big Brother set up in their weekly lives for thousands of years. Our traditional Sabbath rules prohibit driving, so even if you're not locked in your home you're limited to your neighborhood and to those familiar faces within walking distance. With 25 hours per week of no phones or faxes or electronic media of any kind, conversation and interaction are virtually assured. Even if children and parents, husbands and wives, strive mightily to avoid one another during the week, it's difficult to do so on Saturdays in Sabbath-observing families.

Another factor of religious life echoes the intensity of such television spectacles as Big Brother. On the TV shows, the participants know that at all times, cameras monitor their moves and microphones catch their words; anything they do or say may turn up as part of a broadcast to a massive audience. In faith-based homes, family members also know that their actions and conversations constantly will be monitored.

But the viewer involved in watching every detail of our behavior is even more important and powerful than the eager millions who will tune in every night on CBS.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . He also participated as a conspicuously successful competitor on The GE College Bowl in 1968 on NBC. You may contact him by clicking here.


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© 2000, Michael Medved