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Reality Bites

If you haven't caught an episode of The Real World, Survivor, or one of the growing collection of reality-based programs by now, you're probably quarantined on the set of Big Brother.

What started nine years ago with seven strangers in New York City was a Gen-X voyeur's dream. What remains is a rising tide of commercialized melodrama fit for a public punch drunk on tribal councils and million-dollar questions. The Real World, MTV's first foray into fishbowl psychodrama, debuted in 1991 and quickly became a pop culture phenomenon. We laughed, we cried, we loved, we hated. But most important, we watched.

Despite The Real World's success, copycats were slow in coming. MTV's own extreme-challenge follow-up, Road Rules, debuted the next year, but the gun-barrel antics of Cops and America's Most Wanted remained the series' only "true TV" contemporaries.

The major broadcast nets, ABC, NBC and CBS, passed on similar projects, deeming the cable-ready exploits of The Real World too risqué for primetime fare. So what happened?

Blame it on bad programming, splintered viewership, or the looming behemoth once called "The Information Superhighway," but broadcast TV faltered. Ratings plummeted as the ranks of Seinfeld grew thinner, and new hits like ER and The X-Files wound up on the endangered species list.

Enter Regis. As American TV execs looked east for inspiration, (No, not Mecca. Think Britain.) Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? burst into our living rooms. With its aging but amiable host, futuristic set, and hefty payoff motivating contestants, Millionaire was an instant smash, pumping life, viewers and ad revenue back into primetime.

What differentiated Millionaire from Jeopardy and company was its humanity. We met contestants' families, heard their stories, and watched them struggle through their greenback journeys and trivial pursuits. Players "talked it through" with Regis as viewers participated online.

Millionaire's cunning genesis appeared all too innocent, and America took the bait. But in time, the routine has grown tired, the questions easier and the contestants' idle banter all too scripted. Nearly a year after its American debut, Millionaire is about as stale as Regis's one-liners. And its knockoffs, Greed and Twenty One, also managed to flop in their kitty litter.

This summer, The Real World and Road Rules are back, rejuvenated by the halo effect of Survivor's press and the hubbub over reality programming. But one can't help noticing that things have changed. The current casts grew up on the very shows they are now on, and the heightened self-awareness belied by their camera-friendly smiles and "candid" interviews show it. Perhaps reality TV is making actors out of all of us.

And then there's the all-new Survivor and its CBS comrade Big Brother. As the most-watched summer series on record, Survivor is a bona fide television juggernaut. The stakes are higher than either Millionaire or Road Rules, but the hook is dangling from the same pole. In a post-Darwinian twist on natural selection, contestants determine their fates on the merits of physical prowess and interpersonal skills. It's Lord of the Flies for the child in all of us.

With Big Brother, the underlying trend intensifies. With a 1984 angle and another chunk of green on the line, ten contestants endure a three-month stay in a cookie-cutter suburban cell located on the lots of CBS Studios. This time, the audience picks the finalist, but arguably, the true "winner" might be the reject from week one.

The term "exploitation" does Survivor and Big Brother little justice. Neither does "voyeuristic" and "contrived." The Big Brother cast is a perfect slice of American demographic pie, ripe with a stripper and an undergrad playboy sure to provide a fair share of nocturnal mayhem. And like The Real World before them, both shows serve up a packaged, scintillating dose of heavily-edited "reality." Arguably, the end product is far more faux than any evening of Friends or Everybody Loves Raymond.

As many have noted, the popularity of these shows says something about us as viewers. In an e-world with vanishing privacy, are we obsessed with full disclosure? Do we watch to see losers ousted or to revel as "survivors" succeed? What exactly are we so excited about?

Regardless of why we're watching, the fact remains that reality TV isn't doing much to enrich the American TV diet. As with other trends, like the talk-show craze of daytime and the newsmag rush of the mid-'90s, the mighty are sure to fall. But one thing is certain: We'll be watching them all the way down.


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