CBS's Democratic Justice

The TV networks are suddenly exploiting a public fantasy for quick riches with rather quixotic shows. An article in today's Ideas section looks at the motives, both dark and light, behind such shows as ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" or Fox's "Greed: The Multi-Million Dollar Challenge."

But the most extreme evolution of these televised money-contests is a CBS show called "Survivor," due to debut by summer.

The show will put 16 competitors on a deserted island off Borneo and watch them cooperate - or not - in finding food, shelter, and group harmony. Every three days, a secret ballot will be taken for one member to be voted off the island. The last person to "survive" receives $1 million.

This show is a nonfictional form of either "Lord of the Flies," "Gilligan's Island," or "Robinson Crusoe," with a coating of "The Truman Show." But it's also a crass experiment in social dynamics beyond just life-boat ethics.

How will humans, taken away from their normal institutions and rules, decide to organize themselves into a new society?

Political philosophers have long debated such a question. Will the isolated group agree to live by principles of equal liberty, such as free speech? And after that, will they set an egalitarian standard of social justice, such as sharing the food they find, so that wide disparities in well-being don't rupture the group?

And will they find their self-interest in meeting the interests of others (while still hoping to win that pot of gold at the end)?

Intrigue, adventure, political theory, and big bucks - all wrapped up in one show. It may make for interesting water-cooler chats the morning after. But since the producers and contestants will be driven by money, we suspect the big questions won't get answered.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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