As the CBS reality-TV juggernaut of "Survivor" and "Big Brother" rolls across the summer landscape, competing networks are beginning to look like show contestants as they try to top one another with the most outrageous new idea.
NBC wants to strap strangers of the opposite sex together 24/7 to see what happens ("Chains of Love"). Fox is sending contestants on a cross-country search for an item to steal in "The Heist." "Endurance UK," a possible import, promises prizes to hopefuls who can withstand having gobs of maggots on their faces. Even high schools (Fox, "American High") and hospitals (ABC, "Hopkins 24/7") have been wired in hopes of stealing viewers' "eyeballs" from CBS. No doubt Paddy Chayefsky, that great satirist of TV whose 1976 film "Network" set the standard for "how far TV can go," would be lost for words.
But even as critics and cultural observers decry the exploitation of a mother of four children who spills the story of her broken marriage on national TV (Karen on "Big Brother"), another reality also appears to be emerging.
TV is being redefined as we watch, and, say some, that's not entirely a bad thing.
" 'Survivor' and 'Big Brother' are to TV what jazz is to music," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. They both use improvisation to tell a story.
In scripted dramas and comedies, the story is completely controlled, down to the way actors read their lines. "Now you have something like jazz, where you set up the rules and the universe, and then you allow this area of unpredictability by populating it with people without scripts."
These shows are not complete chaos, Dr. Thompson adds. Much previewed taped footage is used. But he points out that in the world of popular storytelling, this use of real-life footage is new. "Even back in the Homeric poems, which had improvising..., there was still a sense that there was a script people were following."
While the reality-TV form is raw and allows for exploitative material, "sooner or later, someone will make a masterpiece in this area that we will celebrate and wonder why it hasn't been done before."
A surprisingly diverse group of observers, outside and inside the industry, agree that while reality TV is full of potential for exploitation, it also opens up new doors, both creatively and technically.
"These shows have been a positive influence on television," says a former president of CBS Entertainment, Jeff Sagansky. He's now president of the upstart PAX network, whose target audience is families looking for wholesome fare.
"This medium was becoming ossified," he says. "If I had to watch one more show about 20-something friends in Manhattan, I don't know what I'd do." (Mr. Sagansky's network has just signed a deal to air part of its lineup on the network that airs "Friends," NBC.)
He points in particular to the round-the-clock broadcast of "Big Brother" on the Internet. "These shows are especially pushing the development of the new technologies as a way to tell stories and communicate," Sagansky says. He smiles and adds, "Besides, when they get too edgy, they just create more of an audience for PAX shows."
One of TV's preeminent writers, Steven Bochco, creator of such landmarks as "L.A. Law," "NYPD Blue," and "Hill Street Blues," has watched the reality shows and appreciates their potential.
"They're an experiment with the TV form," he says, "which is as it should be, because TV is an evolving medium." His most recent show, "City of Angels" on CBS, has received high marks for its multicultural casting, an important kudos in a season marked by protests from minority groups who felt underrepresented on television.
Mr. Bochco says reality programs can be another step in addressing that issue.
"They're a great democratic experiment," he says. "It's like a huge, sophisticated Internet, where all these voices that we haven't heard before are getting a hearing." He points to the racial controversy generated by William Collins, the first of the "Big Brother" cast members to be voted out of the house. While Mr. Collins, an African-American, was in the house, he tried to engage the others in a discussion of racial issues. Bochco says this was an important turning point for the show.
"Here was a guy with a point of view, which might not otherwise have ever found the light of day," Bochco says.
As part of the inevitable post-show publicity, the first banished member turned his own Andy Warhol-like 15 minutes of fame into a platform. "I believe, definitely, those issues that I had conversations about were things talked about in barrooms and pool halls and in bathroom stalls and at homes across America," says Collins, aka Will Mega. "I thought one of the subjects that is ofttimes taboo, along with politics and religion in America, is race, and this again forced some conversation around the issue of race."
The Internet simulcast is also important, Collins adds. "I think this is going to make television much different because the Internet, especially in this reality show, is allowing you to see that which has not been edited."
"There's a certain democratization that's happening with this kind of TV," agrees media pundit Thompson. The same forces have been at work in academia, he points out, where course offerings have expanded beyond discussions of great leaders to investigations of the daily lives of everyday people.
Karen, the mother of four whose husband was invited to respond to her views about their marriage, is a good example.
"The conversation is communicating something that's tragic," Thompson says. "But it's a part of the experience of every woman in America, and there's something important about giving that woman a voice, even if only 10 percent is sincere, because she won't be seen on CNN or even on 'Frasier.' "
While critics, by and large, have laughed at the notion that the networks' motives are anything other than a tabloid-like grab for ratings, this hasn't stopped the executives in charge from suggesting that they, too, have a larger vision.
"We're trying to be experimental," said Les Moonves, president of CBS Television, as he addressed a gathering of television critics in California last week. He reminded them that in the past, he has taken heat for ignoring summer programming altogether, and he asked for some credit where it is due. "We're trying to push the envelope," he said.
As it turns out, even as lofty a thinker as Norman Mailer is willing to give reality shows credit. "I'm not opposed to reality programming ipso facto," says the writer, whose novels have dealt with nearly a century of American culture. "Out of the crucible of improvisation, great things can emerge. It just depends on who's in charge."
It is not unlike the ability of a great partygiver to bring out the best in the guests, says the man whose penchant for partying is legendary. "A great host can guide [the party] to great results," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society