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Ty Burr dives into CBS' fishbowl Internet event -- but not the TV show

''Big Brother'''s creepy webcast is captivating

CBS' follow-up to ''Survivor,'' the ''people in a fishbowl'' nightly series ''Big Brother'' is poised to become a ratings disaster: The first night attracted 22 million viewers, but by the next Saturday, the numbers had plunged to the point where it was beaten by ''COPs'' on Fox. Clearly, America doesn't have much interest in watching a bunch of folks sit around a minimally designed house getting on each others' nerves.

But if that's the case, why were I and six of my coworkers gathered in my office, riveted as Jordan -- a.k.a. ''The Stripper'' -- cried on her bed in the throes of a near-nervous breakdown? Because we were watching the live Internet feed of ''Big Brother'' (www.bigbrother2000.com) -- the only genuine way to gawk at this 24-7, drought-to-melodrama experience. As anyone who has followed ''Survivor'' knows, the weekly hour long show is really a creation of the editors at CBS, who pick out the high points, ignore what doesn't fit, and cobble together a ''plot'' from the day-to-day tedium.

''Big Brother'''s sick genius is to put its ''survivors'' into a petri dish with the cameras rolling and offer the results up to us as an ongoing guilty pleasure soap opera. But that format doesn't work when it's rejiggered to fit a half-hour slot -- and handed to us by such smarm-mongers as hosts Julie Chen and Ian O'Malley. No, the Internet is the only medium that can follow through on all the show's creepy, ''Truman Show''-meets-Orwell memes -- the place where we can have our exploitation and chew on it too.

As we watched the events unfolding in the teeny-tiny RealPlayer window on my office PC, Jordan lay in her bed, heaving huge, jagged sobs of dismay. A few of the female roommates came in, asked desultorily if she was okay, then left. Finally, William came in (the only one on the show with real, unforced charisma, if you ask me) and actually tried to help her out. And as Jordan blurted out her doubts about ''getting into this whole thing'' -- the house, the show, the ''trade your privacy for fame'' vibe -- and William cracked jokes about the other housemates to cheer her up, all of us stood around talking to the screen and each other. And at that moment, I realized that ''Big Brother'' is more than just a ''watercooler'' show. It's the watercooler itself.

A watercooler that's self-aware, in the bargain. Jordan discussed the nightmares she's been having since coming to the house and how her fears of being exploited on a national level hook up with her misgivings about taking off her clothes in front of men. Yeah, you can laugh at her if you want: No one told her to be a stripper OR a ''Big Brother'' cast member. But in her awkward way, Jordan was getting to the heart of why we like to watch -- anything -- and why being watched can make you feel both alive and like dirt. As for William: Was he honestly listening to her? Or was he about to make a move? It was the time-honored college-dorm-room yammer-session between guy and gal, but expanded with multiple meanings by where they were and where we were and how we were seeing them.

On TV, this would be presented to us with a setup and a voice-over and some nudge-nudge editing. On the Web, as paradoxical as it sounds, it's unmediated. There's nothing between what's happening in that house and what we're seeing, no layer of corporate flummery, and that makes it impossible to look away -- and impossible to deny our own complicity in this sideshow.

Originally posted Nov 21, 2000