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Why Do You Think They Call It the Eye Network?

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, March 2, 2000; Page C01

If Fox's "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" fiasco gave pause to CBS suits who plan to air the voyeur shows "Survivor" and "Big Brother" this summer, news of the German government's reaction to that country's version of "Big Brother" may send eye network folk running for cover.

In Germany, where "Big Brother" debuted yesterday, politicians are calling for it to be banned for violating media laws prohibiting programs that offend human dignity. At worst, the network broadcasting the show could face six-figure fines or have its license revoked, the Associated Press reports.

"Big Brother," appropriately named after the ubiquitous dictator in George Orwell's novel "1984," was developed in the Netherlands and became a hit there. To win a lot of money, five men and five women agree to be locked together in a house--in the German version it's actually a bunch of connected prefab modules--for 100 days, with virtually no contact with the outside world and under constant surveillance. The "house" is chock-full of microphones and cameras are set up everywhere--and we do mean everywhere. Each day's doings are edited down to a one-hour program.

The German version offers the residents a room where they may speak with a psychologist without the conversation being broadcast. Contestants may leave at any time, but they give up any chance of winning the big prize.

In the United States, CBS plans to air the show six nights a week this summer. Voyeurs who don't think an hour a night is enough can peek at the goings-on any time on the Internet.

Each week, viewers will vote to whack a contestant until only one remains. He or she wins a cash prize--CBS will say only that its pot is "substantial."

In a conference call earlier this week, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves acknowledged that a psychologist friend is urging him not to run his planned voyeur shows. Nonetheless, CBS is plowing ahead, though Moonves says he ordered that the chosen contestants on "Survivor" be screened again since the recent scandal over Fox's "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" Casting for "Big Brother" has not yet begun.

"I want grade school diplomas," Moonves says he told the "Survivor" producers when he ordered the new background checks, and they've now gone over each of the 48 potential contestants' backgrounds "with a fine-tooth comb."

"At the end of the day we're still a little nervous about it," he admitted.

Moonves could not be reached yesterday to comment on the German reaction to "Big Brother." But a CBS rep dismissed it as similar to the reaction the show caused early on in the Netherlands. "Things calmed down once everyone saw the series and realized that the participants were not being mistreated," the CBS rep said.

"We know the show will be considered somewhat controversial, but we plan to take every step necessary to make sure it is cast and staged in a responsible manner."

In Germany, where almost anything goes TV-wise, the program is being aired on the struggling private network RTL II, which generally reruns U.S. shows like "Home Improvement" and soft-core porn.

A show that locks up people for the entertainment of others has caused German politicians to question whether it should be considered a form of human experimentation, the AP reports. Such accusations are especially significant in Germany, where Nazi and Soviet-backed totalitarian regimes carried out surveillance on their own citizens.

RTL II has had a law professor write a brief defending the program.

But Erwin Huber, chief of staff of the governor of conservative Bavaria, called it "a new dimension in sensationalism, Schadenfreude and voyeurism." Other politicos have slammed it, calling it "a people zoo" and a "massive offense" to constitutional guarantees protecting "human dignity." And polls indicate that most Germans believe such shows cross moral borders, the AP reports.

Peter Widlok, spokesman for the North Rhine-Westphalia broadcasting authority, said officials would be watching the show to see if it runs afoul of media laws.

Similar campaigns to shut down German talk shows have failed because the legal standard for proving damage to human dignity is vague.

Although RTL II could be fined up to $250,000 or have its license revoked for violating the laws, Widlok told the AP, such extreme actions are 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.' "

Sheesh, Fox should've talked to this guy before it aired "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?"

That show featured maybe-multi-millionaire Rick Rockwell shopping for a bride among 50 contestants. It lured 23 million viewers at its peak, which makes the "Big Brother" numbers look like lunch money. But Fox had to scrap plans to rerun the hit and do a major mea culpa when stories emerged that a former girlfriend had gotten a restraining order against the network's Prince Charming and that his chosen bride, Darva Conger, flipped out with a sudden attack of modesty, spurned her made-for-TV bridegroom, returned from her honeymoon and went on a whirlwind I Hate My Husband tour of ABC and NBC news programs.

UPN top gun Dean Valentine recently told USA Today that the only kind of person who would become a contestant on a show like "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" is either "a sociopath or an actor."

The Netherlands Institute of Psychologists branded the original "Big Brother" "irresponsible and unethical." Most critics there said it was simply boring, although 1 million people tuned in to each episode. CBS needs a lot more viewers than that--1 million is a bad number even for a UPN show. On the other hand, the Netherlands has a population of only 15 million while the United States has about 250 million.

WRC news anchor Jim Vance, who recently took a brief respite from the job he's held for 30 years, is back in fighting form. In his commentary last night he made clear that he wants D.C. Taxicab Commissioner Sandra Seegars fired.

Channel 4 has been rerunning old commentaries occasionally during the February sweeps, followed by updates. Last night it showed a March 1988 commentary in which Vance blasted D.C. cabbies for refusing to pick up Derrick Bell, a Harvard law professor, for the simple reason that he was a black man.

The cab-catching landscape here in D.C. has changed--for the worse, Vance said in a fresh commentary at the conclusion of the clip.

"When Taxi Commissioner Sandra Seegars said [in January] D.C. cabbies should drive right on by dangerous-looking people and avoid dangerous neighborhoods, do you know what my reaction was? . . . My first reaction was, my God, did our enslavers do their job well!"

He also took issue with Seegars's description of a "dangerous-looking" fare: "a young black male with his hat on backwards, shirttail hanging below his coat, baggy pants below his underwear and unlaced tennis shoes.

" 'Scuse me. That is my son," Vance bellowed, "who is also a successful student at Columbia Law School. His running buddies--among them a writer, two filmmakers, investment counselors, businessmen--look just like him and they are about as dangerous as a bunch of Chihuahuas."

He called for Seegars's resignation and advised viewers, "Remember how ridiculous you looked to your parents in 1970 and then stop assuming that my son is dangerous. He is not the enemy."

Vance last month signed a new multi-year contract with WRC after a short absence that led to much concern at the station that the longtime anchor planned to retire or move on.

While the rest of the nation was reeling over Kathie Lee Gifford's retirement announcement on Tuesday, more than a hundred Moose fans descended on Crown Books in Dupont Circle to catch a glimpse of their favorite Jack Russell terrier.

Moose, who plays attitudinal Eddie on NBC's sitcom "Frasier" and takes the lead in the big screen's "My Dog Skip," opening tomorrow, hammed it up in front of an "enthralled crowd," his escort David Wenger told The Post's John Maynard.

Due to Moose's unopposable thumbs, Wenger rubber-stamped a paw print on customers' copies of Moose's book "My Life as a Dog." The memoir, written with the help of TV writer Brian Hargrove, reveals that Moose is a reformed smoker and is loaded with such bons mots as "If you got 'em, lick 'em."

One lucky book buyer had his ear licked by the pooch and vowed to never wash it again.

And Moose's bad-dog side was revealed when the star couldn't keep his paws off one blond admirer.

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© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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