Television offers virtual humanity

Broadcasting people’s private lives on television — when and where will it stop? Our voyeuristic fascination and hollow emptiness have sunk to new lows, thanks to technology and the entertainment industry’s urge to bring you, the viewer, “real people’s lives.”
It all started nine years ago with MTV’s “The Real World.” From a group of applicants, seven young people were chosen by producers, displaced to a new city, and ended up as roommates in a rent-free, bill-free house for six months.
Microphones and TV cameras wallpapered the house except in the bathroom, and cameramen followed around the “cast members” during their day-to-day existence. Likable and unlikable characters were created through the art of editing, and every week, seven days’ worth of seven people’s lives were cut down and mixed with music for a half-hour show.
The still-fresh phenomenon then moved on to the big screen with “The Truman Show” and “EDtv.” In “The Truman Show,” Jim Carrey’s character lives an ideal life, unaware that his entire existence — his loved ones, his neighborhood, even his weather — has been completely engineered by a psychotic director. Millions tune in every day to share his frustrations, watch him sleep and cheer him on in his simple life.
In “EDtv,” Matthew McConaughey’s character resembles the people who “act” in “The Real World.” To improve station ratings, a TV producer suggests broadcasting one man’s life on television 24 hours a day. Though at first he welcomes the fame, Ed eventually despises his notoriety and the many comedic predicaments he and his family find themselves in.
Then, young people began buying into the fad, creating their own “virtual fame.” Today, millions of Web-cams sit in dorm rooms and apartments, recording people sleeping, doing homework or partying.
All of this excitement is available to anyone and is just a click away. What could be more thrilling than watching someone puke up a night’s worth of liquor on the sofa?
But the stakes have been raised. Network television has cashed in on the “real-life” trend when CBS outbid all other stations for the chance to adapt and produce the Dutch series, “Big Brother.”
Premiering this summer and scheduled to air five days a week, “Big Brother” will place a group of volunteers in a house equipped with two dozen cameras and 59 microphones, even in the bathroom. For three months, nine or 10 people will live without any contact to the outside world.
Ironically, although their every move will be recorded for possible broadcast, the volunteers will not be allowed to watch television. For more devoted viewers, a Web site will be set up, broadcasting the peoples’ lives in real time. Each week, fans will vote to determine who gets to stay and who gets to leave, and by the series end, the last person left will receive a cash prize.
“Big Brother” might sound psychologically challenging, but it can’t even compare to another CBS series airing this summer called “Survivor.” Sixteen volunteers who successfully pass screening tests will be abandoned on a deserted island in the South China Sea.
They must build their own shelters, forage for their own food and establish a governing council. Again, each contestant will be eliminated over the weeks, voted out by their fellow island mates. The “survivor” who is left wins one million dollars.
Why do we follow circus antics like this? Why do we enjoy watching people let themselves be manipulated into inhumane conditions simply for the allure of money?
Because we are the society that weans our children from their mothers’ breasts and leads their suckling minds to the satisfying bellies of the Teletubbies. Barney baby-sits our toddlers, and PokÇmon becomes their playmate. As adults, we spend our years watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows. Real human contact, unlike 7-foot purple dinosaurs, has become all but extinct.
Look at the millions who gawk at their TV sets, hyperventilating over a stranger’s chance to win a million dollars. Unwilling and unready to face the real world, people lead lives pathetically void of any satisfying human relationships.
Yes, their social skills are withered and dying, but the entertainment industry truly cares for these people! Networks only have their viewers’ well-being and best interests in mind.
Producers have analyzed the TV-watcher’s mentality. Although their eyes glaze over when they come under the hypnotic influence of TV, a small part of them still hungers for humanity. To deal with the inadequacy of their own lives, they vicariously live through their TV sets.
Answering a game-show question faster than the contestants validates their own intelligence. Crying over a soap opera exercises their emotional capacity, satisfying their inner dreams of being beautiful, young and rich. Laughing at a sitcom helps them overcome their own tragic existence.
And now, thanks to CBS, they can even have their mundane life elevated to fame! Everyday people’s lives are now worthy of prime time television.
Instead of forcing these people to extend themselves and join the rest of humanity, TV networks are bringing humanity to them. People flossing their teeth, people taking out the garbage, people scratching their private parts — it’s all there for everyone’s viewing satisfaction.
Perhaps 20 or 30 years from now, people won’t even need to see each other, let alone interact with another human being. Between the Internet and the television, all their social needs will be met. Click on a Web site, and there’s your grandchild picking her nose. Turn on the TV, and there’s your next-door neighbor clipping his toenails.
Change to another channel, and there you are, rotting away in front of your TV set, watching the world as the world watches you.
Samantha Pace’s column runs on alternate Tuesdays. She welcomes comments to [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]