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German Reality TV Show Under Fire

March 1, 2000

BERLIN (AP) _ It’s normally almost anything goes on German television, where even the nightly newscasts aren’t necessarily beyond flashing some skin on the air.

Things will be taken a step further today, though, when ``Big Brother″ premieres: a show filming every second of the lives of 10 people locked inside a house. Not even the shower is safe from the 28 cameras.

The show is modeled on a hit Dutch series of the same name that’s a takeoff on MTV’s ``Real World,″ which films people and their daily lives without a script.

Yet even before the first episode of ``Big Brother,″ German politicians have called for it to be banned for violating media laws prohibiting programs that offend ``human dignity.″

Interior Minister Otto Schily went so far as to call the show a ``massive offense″ against the article of the constitution that protects that value.

``Whoever wants to preserve human dignity should boycott the show,″ he told the weekly Die Woche newspaper in an article published today.

Drawing its name from George Orwell’s classic novel, ″1984,″ the show ``Big Brother″ films 24 hours a day in the enclosed compound where the five men and five women have been living since Monday. Contact with the outside world is limited, with no newspapers, computers, telephones or televisions allowed.

Every so often, the audience will get the chance to kick a person out of the house in a telephone vote, and the person left at the end of the 100 days of filming will get a $125,000 prize.

RTL II, a struggling private network that usually broadcasts U.S. reruns like ``Home Improvement″ and soft-core porn, will edit 45 minutes of footage to air every night. The audience can also watch the house live on the Internet.

In the United States, CBS won a bidding war in February for rights to the series, which it will air starting this summer. Networks in Canada, Spain, Denmark, Italy and England have also expressed interest.

The show’s premiere comes amid criticism of the trend in the United States toward reality television, including Fox’s recent ``Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire.″ The wedding between two strangers drew 23 million viewers, but Fox swore off similar shows after questions were raised about groom Rick Rockwell’s background.

German politicians, labor officials and others have condemned ``Big Brother″ for crossing the borders of taste _ even going so far as to question whether it should be considered a form of human experimentation.

Such accusations are especially significant in Germany _ a land with a legacy of the Nazi and East German totalitarian regimes, both of which carried out surveillance on their own citizens to crush any dissent.

The governor’s chief of staff in conservative Bavaria state, Erwin Huber, called it ``a new dimension in sensationalism, Schadenfreude and voyeurism.″

Kurt Beck, the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate state and chairman of its radio and television commission, has said the broadcasts should be banned. The head of the respected public television network ARD called the show ``a people zoo.″ Polls have even shown that a vast majority of Germans feel that such shows cross moral borders.

But all those criticisms have been countered by cries of censorship from other television stations. RTL II has had a law professor write up a legal brief defending the show.

Peter Widlok, spokesman for the North Rhine-Westphalia broadcasting authority that is currently chairing all such state boards, said officials would be watching the show tonight to see if it runs afoul of media laws.

RTL II could face fines of up to $250,000 or even have its license revoked for violating the laws, Widlok said, but he emphasized such extreme actions were unlikely.

``We expressed serious warnings to station managers of RTL II and informed them of the risks that are involved,″ he said. ``We told them, ’You are dealing with human beings, and you cannot foresee everything.‴

``Big Brother″ offers residents a room where they can go to speak with a psychologist, but that will not be broadcast to the audience.

Similar campaigns to shut down German talk shows for turning to trash by following the American model have ended without action because the legal standard for proving damage to human dignity is vague.

In the Netherlands, the attacks on the show only went as high as the Netherlands Institute of Psychologists, which branded it ``irresponsible and unethical.″ Most critics there said it was simply boring, although 1 million people tuned in to watch each episode.

Producers of the German show have said they want to make the conditions a little more difficult than they were in the Netherlands. While Dutch producers sought out a group that had things in common, the German production tried to do the opposite in selecting from the more than 1,000 people who applied.

The residents range from Manuela, 22, a Pisces from Hamburg who says her boyfriend believes she will be faithful although she isn’t sure, to Alexander, 37, a Capricorn from Bonn who reportedly is bringing condoms with him because he ``has no problems with sex in front of a camera.″

Finding a place for intimacy might be hard. There are only two bedrooms (one for the men, one for the women) in the 1,646-square-foot house.

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