Peek-a-boo boom

CBS, producers lead charge to voyeur TV

With CBS preparing to launch “Big Brother” next month, and more Must Peek TV in the works, it’s a good time to be in the two-way mirror business.

The success of “Survivor” has suddenly given scores of reality producers a golden ticket into the network suites to pitch their take on the suddenly hot mix of reality and voyeurism.

“Are they beating down our doors? Absolutely, with the most ridiculous ripoffs of ‘Survivor’ and ‘Big Brother’ you’ve ever heard,” said CBS Television topper Leslie Moonves.

Speaking Wednesday at an open house to show off the “Big Brother” digs, Moonves put a positive spin on the new dominance of reality skeins.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily bad,” Moonves said. “There’s a desire to see this kind of programming. I have no problem with it. There are 500 channels out there. If you don’t like it, change the channel.”

Some crix are already starting to pounce on the sociological ramification’s of TV’s new fascination with letting viewers spy on their friends and neighbors. The worry: The relative innocence of “Survivor” and “Big Brother” could tempt programmers to try even more outrageous forms of spycam fare.

“It’s very controversial,” Moonves said in a later interview with Daily Variety. “But that’s a good thing. Let people talk about it.”

The CBS topper, however, rejects the slippery slope argument.

“Does this lead to public executions? I don’t think so,” Moonves said, adding that rather than worrying about the long-term impact of shows like “Big Brother,” he’s actually “excited about it.”

“I don’t think we’re doing anything wrong. People are exaggerating the potential of this,” he said.

“Survivor” exec producer Mark Burnett, for one, eschews the “voyeur TV” tag.

“It’s strange that people feel the need to come up with a pigeon hole and stuff disparate things in that same hole,” he said. “We are like an unscripted drama with a reality element and a game show element.”

Sources note that NBC execs in particular have been given an urgent mandate, by chief exec Bob Wright, to start getting real. And Fox, which pioneered the shock-reality genre with shows like “When Animals Attack,” is also looking to find the next generation of reality programming.

It’s quite a reversal from the pre- “Millionaire” era, when today’s two hottest trends in network TV, reality and foreign formats, were shunned by the nets.

“The face of TV has changed drastically in 12 months. The only rule is there are no rules. Diversity is the name of the game,” Moonves said.

“We were a little close-minded,” he said. “Americans assumed that we were an exporter and not an importer. ”

But then “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” made ABC the top-rated network last season. And now “Survivor” has erased a few wrinkles from CBS.

The Eye network a demo juggernaut? Not yet — but the web clearly hopes that Endemol Entertainment’s “Big Brother” will attract even more of those young whippersnappers who’ve begun to make their address CBS on Wednesday nights.

“Obviously we’re enjoying our best summer in many years,” Moonves said. “Now add to it ‘Big Brother,’ which could be even bigger.”

Moonves also couldn’t resist some tongue-in-cheek aping of the demo-centric message that his competish at the other nets have pushed for years.

“We have totally transformed the net. Households don’t matter. Demos are everything,” he joked. But Eye insiders are reacting warily to media prognosticators who’ve declared “Survivor” the cure-all for the net’s historic difficulties attracting younger viewers.

“This isn’t the panacea. This isn’t the end-all, be-all,” one CBS exec said. While it’s “great that we have a young hit,” the Eye insider doesn’t see the net climbing out of the adults 18-49 basement anytime soon.

“We have a stronger fall schedule next year (and) there’s some halo effect,” the exec said. “But our expectations aren’t that high. We’re still going to be in last place (in adults 18-49) next year.”

“Big Brother” has aired or is about to in 25 countries, but “the U.S. version is absolutely the most important,” said Endemol chairman John de Mol.

The U.S. edition will also feature more advanced technology and more cameras than any other version.

Also unlike other editions, such as the German version, the show’s 24-hour online Webcast, featured exclusively on American Online and an AOL Web site, won’t feature any X-rated shots from the “Big Brother” house.

“All programming on the service will meet and adhere to AOL policies,” said Joe Redling, AOL’s senior vice president of brand marketing. “All feeds will come from the control room of CBS. There will be no profanity and no nudity at all,” he explained.

The “Big Brother” cameras would not be “used in an objectionable manner,” Moonves promised. “Having seen numerous versions, I’m not terribly concerned,” he said. “Their standards are very high.”

As for the long-term health effects of spending three months in a Studio City bunker or five weeks on a remote island, Moonves said he’s confident participants will be fine.

“We’ve done extensive psychological testing on these people,” he said. “These people want this badly. … Every person who did ‘Survivor’ said it was the greatest experience of their life, even if they got thrown off the island.”

The German “Big Brother” Web site was hit 200 million times during the show’s run, de Mol said.

Unlike “Survivor,” which CBS pre-sold to eight sponsors in order to hedge the network’s gamble, “Big Brother” will be sold like a normal series. Moonves said a number of advertisers who missed the boat on “Survivor” are scrambling to sign up for “Big Brother.”

Also Wednesday, the network announced that “The Early Show” news anchor Julie Chen has been tapped to host the weekly, live Thursday night interview edition of “Big Brother.”

CBS will air 89 episodes of “Big Brother” beginning Wednesday, July 5, at 9 p.m. The skein will air five nights a week at 8 p.m.: Half-hour editions on Monday, Tuesday and Friday, hourlongs on Thursday and Saturday (Daily Variety, May 3).

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