Who's the real voyeur?

An adult Web site claims CBS's "Big Brother" TV program steers too close to its own online "reality show."

By Damien Cave

Published June 29, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

When CBS's "Big Brother" debuts next Wednesday, many of us will ask why we're stuck hearing and reading about yet another TV show/Web site centered on 24/7 footage of 10 people who share the single dominant trait of lusting for fame. Sure, CBS's "Survivor" is already racking up huge Nielsen ratings, but isn't there already something a little too familiar about the "Big Brother" concept?

CBS tells us that "Big Brother" comes from Endemol, a European production company that has already developed wildly successful Spanish, Dutch and German versions of the "reality show." But according to a lawsuit filed last month in a New York federal district court, "Big Brother" is homegrown in the U.S.A. The original idea for the show, says the suit, came out of meetings last summer between low-level CBS executives and Voyeurdorm.com, a Tampa, Fla., adult Web site that streams live feeds of eight college-age women. These women live together, eating, sleeping, studying and "sunbathing naked" according to the site -- all under the watchful eyes of more than 55 cameras.

CBS vehemently denies stealing Voyeurdorm's "trade secrets." Dana McClintock, vice president of communications for CBS, calls the suit both "frivolous" and "ludicrous."

"The concept behind 'Big Brother,'" says McClintock, "was developed by a European production company long before and independent of any so-called meeting with the operators of Voyeurdorm.com."

McClintock would say nothing further on the record. But read between the lines. Clearly, the Tiffany Network is aghast at any notion that it might be bottom-feeding off of online soft-porn Web sites. But regardless of how the lawsuit turns out, "Big Brother" and Voyeurdorm can't help but share distinct similarities. And while Voyeurdorm can hardly be considered a model of intellectual and sociological decorum, "Big Brother" already looks a whole lot worse. After all, given a choice of where I'd like my life streamed -- Voyeurdorm's Tampa sprawl, or the "back-to-basics" space of "Big Brother" -- I'd choose Voyeurdorm every time.

Take, for example, the payoff. In exchange for their privacy, CBS offers one lucky participant the chance to win $500,000 if he or she is the last person standing. That's a lot of money, but only one person wins. Second and third place also bring in a few thousand dollars, but that's a pittance compared to Voyeurdorm's benefits package -- which includes college tuition, room, board and even a cash stipend. And you can stay as long as you want!

Also, Voyeurdorm lets you live your life as you see fit. The eight women in the house can come and go as they please. "We don't tell them what to do at all," says David Marshlack, CEO and president of Entertainment Network Inc., Voyeurdorm's parent company, which also developed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Web site. "They just have to live and accept that they're being watched."

Meanwhile, in the "Big Brother" house, contestants are essentially prisoners. For three months, they're denied access to television, telephones, computers, mail, newspapers or more than two books. Their water levels are rationed, they can't leave and they have to raise chickens. For fun, they have group activities like "doing a jigsaw puzzle." The latter is actually listed in the show's rules.

All of this suffering is the point, of course. Whereas Voyeurdorm is a community, "Big Brother" is a contest, a thunderdome of Darwinian "Survivor"-style struggle. But both shows are built on pandering to the lowest common denominator. Are we really supposed to believe that CBS's 28 cameras -- some of which are in the bedrooms and showers, and equipped with night vision, no less -- are there for solely educational purposes? No, they're there to catch private acts. At least "The Truman Show" and "EdTV" could admit that invasions of intimacy were what people really wanted to see. Voyeurdorm is equally honest. Don't hold your breath waiting for CBS to do the same.

Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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