When does a TV "reality show" promising a group of 20-somethings sex, stardom, and a dream home become a "concentration camp?"
When the French chattering classes turn their heavy intellectual artillery on a program that has taken their country by storm. And find, to their horror, that France is not always the "cultural exception" they are so proud of.
"Loft Story'" is a local variant of "Big Brother," which has aired in 15 countries. But in France it has become a human rights cause celebre.
Since the titillating daily program first aired three weeks ago, it has provoked acres of commentary in the papers, hours of earnest debate on the airwaves, strictures from Cabinet ministers, and demands that the show be cancelled.
"A dangerous large step has been taken in the matter of human dignity," pronounced the pope of French political correctness, Jacques Amalric, the editor of the left-wing daily Liberation.
So as to "respect the dignity of the human person," the French media watchdog this week ordered the show's producers to turn the cameras off for two hours a day to give the participants a psychological break.
M6, the small TV channel that is presenting the show, however, is laughing all the way to the bank.
Ten million viewers tuned in last Thursday, when the first contestant to be ejected was voted out; the channel's owner, Didier Bellens, has defended his decision to run the show on the grounds that "we have to respect what the audience tells us."
While other "reality" shows have drawn high ratings, "Big Brother" was not a great success in the US, where CBS aired it last year. Here, the producers have introduced a French twist to the plot, combining voyeurism with a dating game. In "Loft Story" - a play on "Love Story" - the five young women and six young men are not competing against each other as individuals; they have to form a couple to win. Viewers vote off one person a week until one couple is left. They win a $400,000 home that they get to keep if they live in it together for six months.
The producers say this format is "friendlier." The point, of course, is that it is sexier.
Ratings began to soar after a topless romp in the swimming pool in one of the first episodes: Editors cut the steamier action that followed, but viewers keen to see more can watch the full uncensored, 24-hour-a-day version on a pay-per-view satellite channel or on the Internet.
"Never has television gone so far in exploiting human guinea pigs to boost the price of commercials," commented Telerama, a heavweight intellectual magazine devoted to television. So appalled were the magazine's editors by "Loft Story," they seriously considered ignoring it, but eventually decided that they had a journalistic duty to analyze the phenomenon because "the fact is there, omnipresent," explained an editorial in this week's edition.
And it shouldn't be, according to Sen. Claude Huriet, who helped draft French bioethics legislation. In his view, which he explained in an article in the authoritative Le Monde, "Loft Story" is not an ordinary TV reality show, it is "a human experiment that calls itself something else."
Since experiments on humans are legal in France only if they are designed "to expand scientific knowledge of the human being and means to improve the human condition" (not a goal that even the show's producers would claim for it), "Loft Story" should be prosecuted, he argued.
The loudest complaint about the eruption of "trash TV" into French homes has come from the president of TF1, the biggest commercial channel, who claims that M6 has broken an unwritten agreement "to prevent trash TV from intruding into France."
His high-mindedness strikes many observers as somewhat hypocritical, however, given that it is TF1 that is hurting most from the new competition, not to mention the fact that TF1 is planning to launch a reality show of its own: a version of "Survivor" later in the summer.
It will doubtless be popular as well, suggesting that the French public is much like other European audiences who have lapped up local versions of "Big Brother" despite dire warnings from the authorities. (When "Grande Fratello" hit Italian screens the pope condemned it as an assault on human dignity.)
The success of "Loft Story" calls into question the Frenchman's traditional respect for privacy, which has always been held here to be a cardinal virtue.
This is, after all, the country where President Francois Mitterrand led a double life for years, with a mistress and daughter living in a government apartment, without any of the politicians or journalists who knew of the arrangement ever thinking of mentioning it in public.
It was the shocking breach of privacy that "Loft Story" represents that motivated the self-styled commandos who last Saturday attacked the industrial compound outside Paris where the loft is situated.
Trying to "liberate" show participants, they were led by a group calling itself "Smile, you're on camera," which has protested the ubiquity of surveillance cameras in shops, on the metro, and in public buildings.
The shock troops were pushed back by riot police.
Other critics of the show will likely find themselves rebuffed by crude economic reality. The price of M6 shares rose by 13 percent in the first week of "Loft Story" notoriety. Next week, the channel is doubling the price of its commercials.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor