WILMINGTON, N.C. — Who needs "weather on the five" or that yawner of a "Seinfeld" rerun?
When Percy Stackhouse wants to watch some real Kramers at work, he turns to Channel 13.
From the comfort of his La-Z-Boy on the ninth floor of the Solomon Towers senior-housing complex, Mr. Stackhouse can use his TV remote to access the dozen cameras keeping mechanical eyeballs on the building's entrances.
Installed last year as a security measure, Channel 13, an unusual closed-circuit TV system, has become a "must see" reality show for the residents of this port city's biggest senior-housing project. (Call it "Real World, Senior Edition.") While women check out "Biscuit," the dancing octogenarian, the men have spotted drug dealers or prostitutes coming into the building after hours. Result: a kaffeeklatsch of gossip and voyeurism.
Although "public-surveillance channels" are used in some high-rises in New York and Chicago, Solomon Towers may be the only retirement home in the country to employ such a system. Now, as other institutions consider similar technology to help people feel safe, the debate over this type of "public surveillance" is whether its subjects will soon have to endure Big Brother's newest incarnation: the little old lady down the hall.
"It's meant for security, but what it's become is entertainment," says Mr. Stackhouse, a retired longshoreman.
Privacy experts note that Channel 13 is but the senior-citizen version of similar mainstays of Internet culture like hidden cameras positioned over Hollywood bus stops or broadcasts of the hijinks in artists' lofts by a Chicago landlord. A TV system like that in Solomon Towers, however, brings the issue of voyeurism closer to home.
"It seems surveillance is no longer just a question of computerization, but a question of nosy neighbors," says Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, a New Jersey-based firm that deals with residential privacy.
In the Towers, many residents freely admit to snooping. Orneather Hanks has found that few things are as interesting as watching her neighbors' quirks and infidelities. "It's like little 'Peyton Place' around here," says the flaxen-haired resident.
Her favorite character is "Biscuit," a particularly fun-loving retiree who lays down hip-hoppish dance moves every time he passes by the cameras. One frequent visitor to the complex likes to stuff balloons under his shirt. Meanwhile, women admit to checking out the shirtless construction workers and the routines of the maintenance men. One week ago, those tuning in were able to watch an impromptu birthday celebration happening on the stoop of the building.
For Gary, a chair-bound former typesetter, the cameras are another new reality in a housing complex that has changed dramatically since handicapped people, some as young as 20, began moving in a decade ago under new federal-housing rules. Since then, police have broken up thievery rings inside the 11-story tower, have busted drug dealers, and even had to deal with a man who fired 17 small-caliber shots around the building, injuring one person. The "paranoia" that sparked the installation of the cameras last year isn't all culled from the residents' imagination, he notes.
"We watch a lot of prostitutes and substitutes coming in here after hours," he says. "People like to check them out on the 'nosy channel' and talk about where they may be going."
Naomi, a talkative ex-New Yorker, says she prefers watching "Touched by an Angel" herself. But with many of the Towers' residents home-bound, the new "reality channel" helps create a sense of security. "So many of the older folks here have the same desires that everyone else has: They want to know about the world of people," she says.
Not everyone likes such digital hawk eyes, though. One legal problem may be that the public viewing of security cameras skirts the fringe of a person's right to privacy an issue especially for people who don't like being surveilled in what is ostensibly their own home.
"What [Channel 13] illustrates is that it's becoming cheaper and cheaper to really do all this stuff, and that being on camera is something that we're going to have to get used to," says Richard M. Smith, a privacy consultant and founder of computerbytesman.com.
He points out that while wiretapping is illegal, there are few rules against covertly filming candid situations in public places. For some, the law has a long way to go to set limits on this form of soundless surveillance.
"The technology is developing at the speed of light, but the law is still back in the stone ages," says Barry Steinhardt, a privacy lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. "We don't have good laws covering how these cameras can be used."
For now at least, the surveillance channel continues to unite the 155 residents in a vicarious communal experience.
"I'm not sure Channel 13 would be as popular if they were watching people in another tower," says Mr. Smith.
Humorist John Kernell of Charleston, S.C., agrees. "I live in an affordable senior project and I wish we had a Channel 13," says the founder of thegeezerbrigade.com, a humor site for seniors.
"The more secret and personal the information is, the more people like it," he says. "They love to know who's coming home at 2 a.m.... It's better than the weather report."