BERLIN — Only through the power of a television game show can an unemployed mechanic become cult hero of a nation.
Two months ago, Zlatko Trpkovski was struggling to pay the bills in southern Germany. Today he boasts his own TV show, a CD single, and an estimated net worth of $2 million.
More interesting than Zlatko fever here, however, is the voyeuristic crucible that forged his celebrity: "Big Brother." This controversial nightly show - coming soon to the US - is a potent blend of the movie "EdTV," MTV's "Real World," and "Greed."
Last month, Mr. Trpkovski - known simply as Zlatko - entered a housing module in Cologne with nine other contestants. The conditions: round-the-clock surveillance by 28 cameras and 60 microphones without any contact to the outside world. The challenge: avoid eviction through housemates and viewers, becoming the last contestant to remain after 100 days. The prize: $125,000.
While Zlatko survived less than six weeks, he emerged from the self-imposed isolation earlier this month to 5,000 screeching fans and a string of lucrative contracts. Nearly the whole country laughed at the beefy son of Macedonian immigrants, who prattled for 39 days in his Swabian dialect with reckless disregard for grammatical rules and admitted to not knowing who Shakespeare was.
Alternately slammed and praised by media commentators here as "the brain," "a trash hero in jogging pants," or "the king of Germany," Trpkovski is suddenly one of the best known people in the country. A record 4.7 million people tuned in on the night Zlatko was evicted, and the "Big Brother" home page (www.bigbrother-haus.de), with some 100 million visitors, is touted as the most-visited Web site in Europe.
Where's the boycott?
When the show first went on air in March, it drew furious opposition from politicians and German bishops, many of whom called for the show to be banned. Interior Minister Otto Schily said that "whoever has kept a feeling for human dignity should boycott the show."
Such outrage, say supporters, is the best advertisement "Big Brother" could get and that participation in the show (as well as viewing it) is totally voluntary.
"To me this is a continuation of freak shows, which have always existed," says Heinz Schilling, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Frankfurt. "Individuals should decide for themselves if they boycott it."
Mr. Schilling says that "Big Brother" is unique in German society because it represents the collapse of barriers between the public and private spheres. At the same time, he adds, the appearance of a popular hero such as Zlatko is evidence that the underclass - and not an educated elite - is increasingly setting the tone in mass media.
Although "Big Brother" originally aired in Holland, and the US version will show on CBS only later this year, Schilling argues that the groundwork for this development was laid in the voyeurism nurtured by US talk shows.
"In a world of cultural globalization, it doesn't matter where a show is designed. One day the apprentices also become masters," says Schilling. "I'm just asking myself what the next step will be. Live executions?"
After all, the audience may eventually tire of the nightly 45-minute recaps of the previous day's happenings in the cramped "Big Brother" house, which consists of two dormitory-style bedrooms, a living area, kitchen, and fenced-in garden.
Currently, the remaining five contestants can be seen engaging in such banal activities as brushing their teeth, blowing up balloons, chopping wood, and cooking dinner. The contestants have their own phone numbers, which viewers can dial to elect who should be evicted next. Every two weeks, the inhabitants can also make secret eviction nominations for their least favorite housemates.
While she says she has never actually cast a vote, Tina Garchow, a young lab technician in Berlin, tunes in every evening at 8:15 p.m. "You never know what happens in advance. It's uncontrolled," says Ms. Garchow, attempting to explain the show's curious appeal. She confesses that the show often dominates the conversation when she meets with friends.
The critics have been less enthusiastic.
"'Big Brother,' the show in which you supposedly see everything, is actually the show in which you see nothing. Or at least not enough to satisfy your curiosity," the daily Berliner Zeitung commented recently, explaining the spin-off "Big Brother" weekly magazine packed with the horoscopes and biorhythms of the contestants, as well as heaps of gossip and a quiz.
Der Spiegel remarked that "basically 'Big Brother' is completely boring. The funniest activities take place outside the house, preferably on the Internet." Besides the official home page, supported by Web cams inside the house, at least 100 related pages have been counted on the Internet. Fans throng the area outside the "Big Brother" module, shouting at contestants and throwing frisbees over the fence with personal messages.
The Dutch profit
For RTL 2, a junior German television network that took a risk on "Big Brother," the hoopla is well worth it. The show is expected to bring in a net profit of $10 million. The managers at Endemol, the Dutch production company, can enjoy the success as much as the German network. Not only do they take half the money that Germany's new superstar makes on such projects as his TV show "Zlatko's World," but CBS paid $20 million for the rights to "Big Brother."
This isn't the only European-reality TV program being exported. German and US viewers can soon expect a version of the Swedish program known as "Expedition Robinson," a similar type of TV game show in which contestants are stranded on a island with limited food, water, and shelter.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society