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On Sept. 26, 1991, a group of eight doctors, scientists and medical researchers entered Biosphere 2, a state-of-the-art field research facility sitting on a 40-acre plot of land in Oracle, Ariz., at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Two years later, on September 23, 1993, they left. In between, they studied, farmed, slept and otherwise lived in this self-contained ecosystem full-time, closely observed and in total isolation.
How the men and women of Biosphere 2 took to their surroundings has been the subject of exhaustive analysis by academics hoping to better understand human behaviour and the psychology of group dynamics, as well as the viability of biospheres in space exploration and colonization. More surprisingly, and quite unintentionally, the Biosphere experiment also changed the face of modern TV.
On Sept. 4, 1997, the Dutch producer John de Mol, creator of Fear Factor, The Voice and Deal or No Deal, came up with an idea for an original program that would be a sort of televised version of Biosphere 2. It would be called De Gouden Kooi , or The Golden Cage , and it would follow a dozen ordinary people sealed together in a house and filmed continuously for one year.
People hated the concept, and de Mol, rejected by network after network, was advised repeatedly that it would never work. He continued to hone the format, drawing elements from MTV’s The Real World and a newly popular series on Swedish television called Expedition Robinson — contestants would record private confessions separate from the others, and would be eliminated from the competition, in a weekly vote, until only one winner remained. He tightened the schedule from a year to three months. He built a set rigged with hidden cameras, so the contestants wouldn’t encounter anyone across their time on the show but other contestants. And he worked up a cutting-edge website where the action could be broadcast live on the internet around the clock.
On Sept. 16, 1999, John de Mol’s Biosphere-inspired opus at last premiered on Dutch TV, under the title Big Brother. Within weeks, the show had a 95-per-cent share of Holland’s under-30 audience, and within a year, de Mol had sold his production company and the rights to Big Brother for more than $7.5 million.
“That was the time of the dot-com boom, when everybody was going mad about new technology, about the possibilities of broadband, the possibilities of telephony, pictures to your mobile, computer and so on, but nobody quite knew how it was going to work,” Peter Bazalgette, author of Billion Dollar Game: How Three Men Risked It All and Changed the Face of Television , said then. “It was an extraordinary piece of chutzpah, as it turned out, of an idea that encapsulated not only what young people were thinking about television entertainment but also the business hype of the time.”
Charlie Parsons, a TV producer from Britain, had been pursuing exactly this kind of success for almost a decade. In the early 1990s, while the Biosphere was in full swing, he developed a concept for a sort of competitive documentary series about a group of strangers living together on a remote island, which at the time he called Castaway. Working with Bob Geldof, Parsons pitched the program to the BBC, who rejected it out of hand as most networks had The Golden Cage .
It wasn’t until 1997 that a frustrated Parsons approached Swedish television with the idea, and there produced the groundbreaking, hugely popular Expedition Robinson — the very show from which de Mol took the device of weekly eliminations.
By the turn of the millennium, Expedition Robinson and Big Brother had begun to attract the attention of the international media, and both shows were justly poised for rapid global expansion. In the U.S., meanwhile, the primetime game show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? was proving a colossal hit, driving every network in the country to produce high-stakes game shows of their own as fast as possible — every network, that is, except CBS, whose president Lee Moonves reportedly hated Millionaire and its imitators, and refused to air anything like it.
So when Moonves was approached, separately but concurrently, about making American iterations of Big Brother and Robinson, he was immediately intrigued. Here were two novel, high-stakes game shows that had all of Millionaire ’s excitement and none of its cosmetic trappings, shows that asked for deeper investment from an audience and courted, by design, outrage and controversy. He green-lit both programs, and in the summer of the year 2000, CBS aired the first seasons of its new Big Brother and what it had renamed Survivor .
Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? made the TV quiz show more popular than it had been since the 1950s. Big Brother and Survivor did even more. “These shows were not just reviving a genre,” Bazalgette told the Irish Times in 2005. “They were creating a new one.” Somewhere between their invention in Europe and their move to the U.S., as we entered the era of the internet, social media and global terrorism, these two shows seized the zeitgeist and charted a new direction for television. There it was. Reality TV was born.
In the early 1990s, as the crew of Biosphere 2 began to show signs of psychological distress, the project was widely criticized for the conditions the nature of the experiment demanded participants endure. At some point during their two-year confinement, the crew divided into factions, working together only when necessary, with adamant rancour; like astronauts on space stations or scientists overwintering in remote research bases, one of the participants afterwards explained, life in close-quarters captivity seemed to make the Biosphere crew go crazy, at least a little bit. You could call it cabin fever. Sensible people, given long enough in such a situation, don’t act so sensibly all the time.
It’s hard to say if John de Mol had this effect in mind when he created Big Brother. But in practice, the people who populate the Big Brother house — or the Survivor island — tend to go a little crazy living in captivity too. While this made for alarming observations among the Biosphere’s external researchers, it also made for rather engrossing, provocative television, as adults in full possession of their faculties started to fight, screw and crack up on camera, all within a few benign weeks removed from their ordinary routines. This was the original paradox of reality TV: The appeal was watching normal people, but as soon as they got thrown into this bizarre experiment, these “normal” people became anything but.
The criticism faced by the Biosphere researchers was nothing compared to the furor that faced the producers of Survivor and Big Brother. At an event promoting the launch of the latter, an indignant audience took turns declaiming it as “the lowest form of television,” a “theatre of embarrassment” that was “nothing more than voyeurism dressed up as sociological experimentation.”
That was roughly the sentiment of the mainstream media, too. Headlines lambasted both shows as the nadir of TV; around the world, Big Brother and Survivor were made out to be nothing less than the first signs of a coming cultural apocalypse. “Such programmes are clearly in appalling taste,” an article in the UK’s Independent opined in horror in early 2002. “What will follow when the thrill … has worn off? Would the BBC draw the line at The Holocaust? One fears not.”
We never got around to a reality series based on The Holocaust , but it did seem, in the wake of Survivor and Big Brother, networks committed to a campaign of escalation — higher stakes, bigger prizes and above all, raunchier content. The crude cannibalistic voyeurism lurking at the heart of these programs, according to critics, soon got cruder and more cannibalistic, as networks such as FOX leaned right in to the genre’s reputation for barrel-scraping vulgarity.
Some of the shows that emerged after Survivor and Big Brother had at least a veneer of respectability — programs such as The Amazing Race , in which people raced across the world in teams of two for a huge cash prize, and Project Greenlight , in which young aspiring filmmakers were documented making their first feature, were essentially fast-paced docudramas, often juiced up with the conventions and aesthetic touches popularized by Parsons and de Mol. Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model and even Queer Eye for the Straight Guy were ostensibly serious shows with real creative merit: The people might be colourful, pushed to heightened emotion by the lights and cameras, but they were still clearly, refreshingly, real.
Of course, there was some trash, too — bawdy, salacious, transparently distasteful stuff meant to lure viewers in for an hour at a time by sheer force of morbid curiosity. Nobody, you have to think, ever hoped Who Wants To Marry a Multi-Millionare? would be bona fide great television, and there was a knowing, self-conscious sleaze factor from the start in Temptation Island , The Swan , and short-lived curios like Playing It Straight (in which a woman had to choose a romantic partner from a dozen eager hopefuls, half of whom were secretly gay). As if to confirm the accusations of broadsheet columnists worldwide, reality TV really did sometimes cater to the lowest common denominator.
Not unlike people confined to captivity, reality television began to divide into two factions.
On the one hand, there were the competition shows, in the style of Survivor and Big Brother : ordinary men and women are thrown together in some larger-than-life scenario and are winnowed down week after week, as they compete for large sums of money. Often these are competitions of some particular skill, as on Hell’s Kitchen or Ru Paul’s Drag Race ; other times they’re based on the desires of one person, as on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette . Either way, the attraction is competitive. We watch because we want to see people win and lose dramatically — and it’s dramatic in the way of any sport.
On the other hand there are what might be called observational reality shows — reality shows that follow ordinary people, for real, without any competitive dimension. Sometimes these people are already famous for one reason or another, as on The Simple Life (about Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie), The Anna Nicole Show , or, most successfully, Keeping Up with the Kardashians; sometimes they are adjacent to fame, as on Basketball Wives or Love and Hip Hop ; sometimes they really are nobodies, but become famous because of the show, as on Duck Dynasty, Shahs of Sunset or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Nothing is at stake on these shows. We watch them simply for the drama of the subject’s life.
It’s this second faction that tends to be the more tawdry, if mainly because, in the absence of any overarching competitive structure, the voyeurism is more pronounced. (It doesn’t help that the men and women most likely to consent to being reality TV stars are not the most dignified or refined.) But while the competitive shows have more depth — the political maneuvering and strategic invention in a season of Big Brother would impress any skeptic of the show’s fundamental seriousness — the core of the appeal is the same across types and sub-genres. Not to get too theoretical about it, but reality TV offers a window onto the psychology of human behaviour and group dynamics you won’t find anywhere else. To get this without reality TV, you’d need a biosphere.
Probably the biggest reality TV show of the last decade, at least internationally, is the UK’s racy, indelicate, flamboyantly licentious Love Island , which is so ubiquitous when it’s on the air in England that it’s all you ever seem to hear anyone talking about. The series, created for ITV by Richard Cowles, would have made Parsons and de Mol blush when they were making Survivor and Big Brother at the end of the 1990s: it centres on a throbbing mass of attractive men and women confined to a beach resort and tasked to couple. Survivor and Big Brother are games of intensive deception and sophisticated diplomacy. On Love Island, all anyone does is bicker and hook up.
This isn’t a remark on reality television’s decline. The genre has always courted the ribald, and has done so extravagantly, without compromising its more serious merits. (And of course for many viewers, watching real people get real naughty is one of the genre’s most serious merits: The escape from decorum and decency can be hugely satisfying.) What’s interesting about Love Island is that it shows how far reality TV has come in the 20 years since it was devised by a couple of European moguls — and at the same time, how little it’s changed.
Love Island is more extreme in its sexuality, more casual in its vulgarity, than the producers of Big Brother and Survivor ever imagined they’d get away with on television. But it’s still the same captivating social experiment as ever, only in a resort rather than a house. Or a Biosphere.
Happily, and unsurprisingly, the response has been about the same. “I watched them take it in turns to choose a mate,” a critic for The Independent in the U.K. lamented after the premiere of Love Island ’s first season. “It was painful viewing.” The critic assigned to review the new season echoed the complaint. “It’s vulgar, vulgar, vulgar,” they wrote. “Obviously.”
More than 3 million people in England tuned in to watch the debut of the latest season last week. In July, an American version of the show will air on CBS in the U.S. and on CTV in Canada. More people are — and will continue to be — watching than ever.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019