The astonishing ratings of "Survivor" and the debut this week of "Big Brother" have everyone asking what the sudden eruption of "reality programming" tells us about ourselves. Everywhere the same two questions arise: Why would any ordinary person subject himself to such an invasion of privacy, agreeing to spend weeks on a desert island with 15 strangers to fight it out for a cash prize, as in "Survivor," or to lock himself in a house with nine other volunteers, where their every move is recorded by 28 cameras, as in "Big Brother"? And why would anyone want to watch?
In the answers, supposedly, lies some deep truth about modern America.
The answer to the first question seems fairly simple: money and celebrity. After he was apprehended, bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks. "Because that's where the money is," he replied.
People want to be on television because in our society, where any kind of celebrity is valorized, that's where the money, the fame, the girls, the guys, the publicity, the recognition are. One has only to think of Darva Conger, the "bride" on "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?," to realize what bounty awaits those who cross to "the other side of the glass." This is easy fame, attainable even to people who have done little to deserve it.
In fact, "Survivor" and "Big Brother" are just variations on what Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Maury Povich, and others have been doing for years - making the other side of the glass accessible to anyone who is willing to barter his or her privacy for it.
But if reality programs hearken back to tabloid television, they also anticipate what is sure to be a popular entertainment in the not-too-distant future. All of these programs have Internet components, where avid viewers can see the contestants 24 hours a day. This makes "Survivor" and "Big Brother" into advertisements for the webcams that people are increasingly deploying to transmit their lives - and snatch a small measure of celebrity from curious onlookers.
The second question - why anyone would want to be an onlooker - is more vexing. "Voyeurism" is the word media observers routinely invoke, as if adducing this explains everything. There is indeed a powerful voyeuristic aspect to "Survivor" and "Big Brother," as there is to "Jerry Springer."
What is voyeurism?
But it helps to understand what voyeurism is. Voyeurism isn't just peeking. It is a form of privilege, enabling us to see what had been proscribed. Part of voyeurism's appeal is the thrill of subversiveness, the wicked kick of peering through the keyhole. Watching these programs is a way of safely exercising mischievousness in a society that allows few opportunities to do so. They allow us to be moral outlaws.
If voyeurism is a form of privilege, it is also a subtle form of empowerment. This is precisely how Freud analyzed it. To watch unobserved is to appropriate lives and assert oneself over them: Those we observe become ours, hostages to our eyes. "Survivor" and "Big Brother" feed our sense of potency. They make us masters of all we survey.
It is also significant that these shows are about community - about the forces that bring us together and tear us apart - at a time when most of us are withdrawing.
As Harvard professor Robert Putnam has explicated in his new book "Bowling Alone," Americans have increasingly become disengaged from one another, disenchanted with public intercourse and social involvement. Voting rates are down, membership in organizations is down, community service is down, church attendance is down, etc., etc., etc.
Though television is often cited as one of the sources for the decline in such interaction, the millions of viewers of these shows are, in fact, forming their own community. Across America there are "Survivor" parties, "Survivor" wagers and pools to guess the winner, "Survivor" chat rooms. One suspects "Big Brother" will create an even larger community.
Still, this may beg the question of why "Survivor" and now presumably "Big Brother" elicit this kind of response. The answer, beneath all the psychological subtexts, may just be that reality is a fabulous form of entertainment - better than conventional entertainment.
Reality: the best show
But what makes reality so darn entertaining? In the first place, reality, even edited reality as in "Survivor," has the advantage of suspense. If the basis of storytelling is the surprise of what's going to happen next, reality can be better than fiction because no one, not even the protagonists themselves, can predict the outcome. Without a script but with a barrel full of plot elements, the story just keeps unspooling. In the case of "Big Brother," which will air live one of its five nights each week, it unspools in real time so that viewers will literally be "in the moment," where anything can happen.
In the second place, because reality programming by definition stars ordinary people rather than actors, there is a powerful identification with them that conventional entertainments cannot provide. Conventional stars can give us vicarious jolts as we project ourselves through their prowess, their attractiveness, their command.
Real-life stars, however, allow us to connect directly with them because they are us - people who are separated from us by nothing more than the break of getting on the air.
Even more important is the charge that reality provides simply by being real.
Programming that has a true story as its source has a fascination all its own, which is why docudramas are always introduced with the label: This is a true story. Reality itself is even more fascinating, holding us in the thrall of life. It has an ineffable power that conventional entertainment - with narrative design and theme - cannot match. That's not to say reality is better than art, only that it has a strange way of captivating, regardless of how much or how little inherent entertainment value there seems to be.
But a key reason reality is so captivating - one that analysts seem loath to discuss - strikes at the very root of voyeurism. Sex. With the Internet erasing any taboo, these TV programs are redolent not only with soap opera, action, sentimentality, and greed, but with sex.
Both "Survivor" and "Big Brother" have been designed not only with equal numbers of men and women, but with enough attractive men and women that the suggestion of sex always hangs in the air - intentionally so, according to "Survivor's" creator.
In the Dutch version of "Big Brother," one couple did wind up making love in full view of the television audience. The subtext is that at any time two people may pair off, though in America the most graphic episodes will left to the imagination.
In the final analysis, reality programming is about the power of ordinary individuals, about the appeal of reality, and about the desire for community, even jerry-rigged community.
But above all, it is about old-fashioned voyeurism - providing us the entertainment of seeing something and imagining something that television had never allowed us to see or imagine.
*Neal Gabler's latest book is "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society