Colombians want real life to mimic reality TV

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For weeks, Andrea was grating on her roommates. She scolded them for not doing their dishes, talked behind their backs, and never missed an opportunity to butt in on conversations that weren't her business.

So she was kicked out.

Getting rid of a bad living companion hardly seems notable. But Andrea wasn't evicted from just any house - she was ousted from "Gran Hermano," Colombia's version of the global TV hit, "Big Brother," where 20- and 30- somethings live for weeks under the glare of the cameras. The viewing public decides who stays and who goes.

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On other versions of the show in places like United States and Britain, the audience tends to keep troublemakers around for their entertainment value.

But in a country torn by decades of civil war and riven by class and racial prejudices, where convivencia - peaceful coexistence - is rare, Colombia's viewers have sent a different message: Either get along - or get out. Reality TV, which dominates the airwaves here, has emerged as an unlikely forum for Colombians to express their desire for peace.

"The subject of living peacefully together is very important to me," says Cecilia Arbelaez, a Bogotá housewife and avid reality-TV viewer. "I think it is one of the problems that the country faces most at this time."

In real life, the contestants on "Gran Hermano" might never be friends, let alone housemates. Contestants have included the combative Andrea, a tattoo designer from Bogotá; John Henry, a gay businessman from Medellín; Maria Fernanda, a small-business owner from Bucaramanga; and Luís, a farmer and wannabe millionaire from Barranquilla.

Each week, viewers vote one person off - either by phone, Internet, text messaging, or even at ATM machines.

The last one left wins the grand prize of $80,000.

South American boom

Colombia is following the lead of Argentina and Venezuela in its addiction to the trendy TV genre. The boom began in Colombia two years ago with the hit show "Survivor," called "Expedición Robinson." Others followed, like "Pop stars," which created an all-girl rock band, and "Bogotá Real," which selected a beauty queen for the national pageant.

The most popular show today is "Protagonistas de Novela," in which impossibly attractive contestants vie for a real-life role in a soap opera.

"Latin America loves soap operas," says the show's producer, Javier Guillermo Restrepo. "This is a soap opera without a script."

Something deeper

But ordinary Colombians see something deeper. Hector Gonzalez, a taxi driver in Bogotá who watches "Gran Hermano," is impressed by the way the contestants evolve.

"The people learn how to live together," Mr. Gonzalez says. "They have to learn how to pardon." As a society, he adds, "I think that we are very lacking in learning how to pardon."

In Colombia, regionalism is rampant, fostered by distrust of the central government. This has led to homegrown solutions to problems of public order that have only given rise to more violence, such as the creation of self-defense groups in the northwest province of Antioquia that later became paramilitaries.

According to Maritza Sandoval, a Bogotá psychologist who has closely followed "los realities," as they are known here, fighting with words is a novel concept in a society where disagreements are often resolved with weapons.

"It is very censured to confront somebody [verbally]," Ms. Sandoval explains. "In Colombia, it doesn't happen," describing society as "very authoritarian," leaving people "afraid to express their feelings."

The show's Internet message boards reveal Colombians increasingly rewarding those contestants who get along. In addition to Andrea getting ousted, Luís, the farmer, earned the ire of the female audience for his machismo, and was sent packing. Meanwhile, viewers praise Ramón, a musician who owns a craft shop.

"You live in peace and tranquility, and for this you will be the [winner of] Big Brother," writes "Camila."

The message boards also reveal Colombia's intense regional rivalries. Viewers tend to criticize those from other parts of the country and champion the cause of their native sons. In real life, petty provincialism has fueled four decades of civil war.

Maria Fernanda, the contestant from Bucaramanga in the northwestern province of Santander, for instance, has been a constant target of criticism on "Gran Hermano" for her accent and behavior, which some viewers have lampooned as "low class" and "tacky."

"You have ruined the people of Santander," wrote "José" in an e-mail message. "Mafe," as she is known, has yet to be eliminated.

'Crisis in values'

Though shows like "Gran Hermano" have been popular, not everyone thinks the results have been positive.

"In general, [contestants] have the same qualities as the people of Colombia," says Frank Beltran, an employee at Bell South who thinks the country suffers from a "crisis of values."

Out of curiosity, he watches "Protagonistas," and has even voted off contestants who he saw as "manipulative, dishonest, liars, and opportunists."

Colombians "like these kind of people," Mr. Beltran says, and one of them is likely to be the newest star of a national soap opera. "Protagonistas," Mr. Beltran laments, "reflects the crisis of the country."

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