You are watching 'Big Brother'

Reality TV is massively popular in Israel but have we become a nation of voyeurs?

By ARYEH DEAN COHEN
February 19, 2009 10:05
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shifra big brother 248 88 . (photo credit: Courtesy)

After a long day at the office, you finally grab the remote and kick back for an evening of TV. Click. A middle-aged woman with glasses, her hair in a tight bun, frowns as she watches someone's kids run amok. Click. Two hyper-charged chefs flash an endless array of knives, preparing food faster than the speed of light as the audience goes wild. Click. A scantily-dressed woman clucks like a chicken, begging food off villagers on a Pacific island. Click. A dweeb gets kissing lessons from a foxy but incredibly stupid woman. Click. A misogynous man and a woman with a severe haircut compare scars, life stories and tales of ethnic discrimination seated by a pool outside an apartment they're sharing with a passel of other people. Is there no escaping reality shows? Not lately, it seems. Our screens have been hit by a tsunami of reality TV that floated in from abroad and which we've imitated. And it doesn't look like we're going to get off this island very soon. Reshet's series Hamerotz Lamillion, the Israeli version of CBS's popular Amazing Race, debuted here in early February, with the 10 couples involved set to include a pair of beauty queens, a pair of former lovers and a father and his step-daughter. Super Nanny, Iron Chefs, Beauty and the Geek, Survivor: Pearl Island and Big Brother are only a handful of the omnipresent reality shows on our screens, especially Channel 2 and 10, or other niche channels like Bip or YES's reality channel. But the flood has also spawned a rising wave of opposition from some actors, sociologists and other critics crying: "Enough." They're determined to bring higher-level TV to the screens, the kind where you don't have to be a hunk, fox or fractious fool to get our attention. Their detractors say they're just jealous of success, missing the important points that can be gleaned from the programs. Unable to lock them in a house together for three months or send them to an island, we offered them a chance to weigh in on whether The Biggest Loser and other reality shows are good or bad for Zion. THINGS HAVE changed since viewers here had only two channels - Israel and Jordan - from which to choose. Once, we were likely to hear the same episode of Dallas or the Maccabi Tel Aviv game coming from almost every window. When Channel 2 became the country's first commercial channel in 1993 - with Channel 10 and cable and satellite channels joining in later - that naïve sense of national unity vanished. Channel 2 first turned to reality in the 1990s, offering cheap and popular game shows like Galgal Hamazal (Wheel of Fortune). Those were followed by "good" reality shows that encouraged positive competition and values, like Kochav Nolad (A Star Is Born, the equivalent of American Idol), or Sof Haderech, which matched observant and nonobservant competitors in a race around the country that offered lessons in geography and coexistence (admit it, you were pushing for Genya, the little Russian girl and the gay guy Hatzav). On Hashagrir (The Ambassador), participants had to defend Israel at Cambridge or the UN in a bid to become our spokesman for a year. More US-based shows - where reality TV really began with MTV's The Real World, which is set for its 21st season - followed, culminating in Big Brother, one of the world's most popular reality shows even before coming here last fall and drawing a whopping 31.75 average rating for Keshet. "You always want to know what's happening in your neighbor's apartment," explains University of Haifa sociologist Oz Almog, among the leading critics of the reality wave, of their attraction. "It's like having a window so you can see everything going on there every day." Shows like Big Brother draw viewers because they show "you can be a hero just by being yourself, as long as you're in the spotlight." "What you see is what you get," says veteran producer Danny Paran (Avoda Aravit, Ha'alufa, Laga'at Ba'osher), who first had the rights to Big Brother and tried to sell it here 10 years ago, but was rejected and subsequently lost them to someone else. "It's life without editing, and life without editing is fascinating... it's a mirror in front of their face... This is us... We cannot run away from ourselves, okay? It's a well-done picture of ourselves, whether we like it or not." Former Hashagrir participant Efrat Oppenheimer cites the need for "sort of a local hero every three months" to fill the void, particularly on the political scene, without risking the disappointment encountered at the polls. But is this media revolution turning us into a "same brain" nation? The herd mentality where you're no one if you can't repeat what [Big Brother contestant Yossi] Bublil said last night is a danger we ignore and should be empowered to oppose, say reality TV opponents. "If you think a little differently, if you act a little differently, then you're strange, different, not okay," says actor Dvir Benedek, head of Shaham, the Screen Actors Association. Ultimately, the impact is two-fold, opponents say: economic and moral. The only recourse, they say, is to put down that remote and act. IT'S 2 P.M. and the kiddie play Bilby (Pippi Longstocking) has just let out at the Jerusalem Theater. Moms drag youngsters down the stairs, dads carrying sleeping siblings behind them. Downstairs in the dressing room, Benedek - who stars in Channel 2's popular Life Isn't Everything comedy - peels off his costume and removes his makeup with the rest of the cast, all happy to have a Hanukka gig to make up for a diminishing call for TV dramas. It was Benedek and several hundred fellow actors and producers - more accustomed to working inside Keshet's Ramat Hehayal studios than protesting outside it - who demonstrated during the season premiere of Eretz Nehederet in December. Their demand? Proper proportions of reality shows, drama and other "elite" programming must be maintained. Other demos by producers and creators also too place, before their suspension when the Gaza operation began. A general strike is also being considered, and between February 24 and 26, actors, screenwriters, producers and directors planned to stop working in a bid to prevent Channels 2 and 10 from broadcasting live events during those days. "The industry was flourishing and suddenly there's no work," says Benedek. "The franchisees are worried about the recession. Anything chancy is being cut, and dramas are chancy… Channel 10 has stopped producing almost anything new. There's less money and less screen time for actors, and in general cutbacks or freezes." Even reality shows themselves have been affected, with reports the new season of Beauty and the Geek and The Bachelor were delayed by Channel 10, but Benedek says the dramas or comedy series suffer more. The channel recently found itself in serious financial trouble, with its future very much up in the air, partly due to its inability to meet the financial demands that it make good on commitments to the Second Channel Authority to air locally-produced quality programming. Paran, whose Darset Productions company office features an Emmy award he won for the documentary Kapo, agrees. "The producers have been getting kicked in the rear for years... I've written all kinds of special programs, dramas... and I say: 'Whoa, who would even think of putting their money in it?' On some reality show they'll put $150,000-$200,000 an episode, but on something that's really talking about values, culture... you're kind of second-rate; it's very disappointing." Indeed, with the economy tanking, Channel 2 franchisees Keshet and Reshet - about to launch its flagship reality show Hamerotz Lamillion - along with the struggling Channel 10 are seeking sure ratings winners, and based on 2008, that's reality - five out of the top 10. That's not the way things are supposed to work, however. All three franchisees are overseen by the Second Channel Authority, established in 1991. A long series of regulations outlines exactly how the schedule should look and how much of the public and private money they are run on should be used for quality programming. In actuality, however, those regulations are often overlooked. For example, in 2007, Reshet was supposed to produce NIS 77m. in "elite programming" - including quality locally-made dramas - and only produced NIS 48.4m.; Keshet was meant to produce NIS 96.6m. and only spent NIS 77m., although they insist that their popular Eretz Nehederet satire show should be counted in this category as well, and are even threatening not to show the program if the Second Authority doesn't agree, according to press reports. Channel 10 did NIS 29.4m. of the NIS 51.2m. it was supposed to provide. Similar discrepancies turned up in 2006 at all three. Recently the Authority rejected the Channel 2 franchisees' spring schedules, claiming they had too many reality hours and should be limited to two a week. But the Authority is considered by many in the industry to be a rather toothless watchdog. Observers say the result is the franchisees' abuse of what they term one of the country's most important national resources: our commercial TV airwaves. "This is a franchise for the most important influential tool in democratic or non-democratic countries," says Paran. "You cannot do with it only what you feel like, according to ratings and money - this is a much more complicated tool that has been put into your hands." The directors and owners of the channels "should think twice before you go to sleep and three times when you wake up about... how you have... stepped all over and manipulated content for your own sake... Winning the tender is not getting a machine to make money," he says. "TV is a national resource, like oil, gas or water," says advocate Elad Man, an expert on media regulation and international commercial law from the Man-Barak law firm in Tel Aviv. "If you want to be a TV broadcast company, you have to comply with the regulations... set by the government." It's not only the Second Channel Authority's weakness that's at fault, he says, but also the inaction of the Anti-Trust Authority, which does "nothing regarding regulation of TV and lack of competition." The communications ministers have also been reluctant to get involved, he says. Besides, adds Man, "enforcement in the field of content is very hard, because who decides what is elite programming and what is trash? It's very fluid. Some may think that Big Brother is the most important production made in Israel for many years... Others may think that you should only broadcast high poetry, which has almost no viewers. So it's a very big argument. "Enforcement is very weak, for many reasons. Some of them are objective, because there are limited resources for this kind of enforcement," says Man. There is also little debate in the mass media about the obligation of mass media to the public, he notes. "This atmosphere makes it very, very hard to create enforcement which is efficient." "We don't want to take away your Big Brother; we just want to lower this wave [of reality shows], this belief that only reality is what we need now," says Benedek. The actors feel they're on a "mission - beyond the scope of just making a living - to guard the balance in what we allow our children to see, what we allow ourselves to see. And right now there is no balance. That balance is in the hands of the franchisees, and they can't be allowed to be the ones to decide, because they're businesses to make money. "We want them to return these millions of shekels that were not invested in elite programming back to the public [and reinvest them in quality programming]. That's what keeps our industry alive. The report by the Second Channel Authority talks about how they're not living up to their requirements in all categories. We're interested in the local productions. But there are problems elsewhere, too, and someone has to be given the power to enforce it. The franchisees know that no one can stand in their way." Sociologist Almog also blames press "pumping" of interest in the shows. "They're the ones that labeled Big Brother as a very interesting show - Yediot Aharonot, Ma'ariv and the entertainment supplements. If they didn't pump it every day, nothing would happen... it's a very vicious collaboration. It's an editorial decision. Because if you put it on the front of your newspaper, what can you expect... the press becomes the Pied Piper of Hamelin and we are the rats." MONEY MAY lie at the heart of the debate, but it's the broadcasts' presumed impact on our hearts and minds that's at the soul of this dispute. Critics say reality shows are numbing us, dumbing us down, stunting our cultural development. Fans thumb their noses, calling such criticism elitism and jealousy over ratings success. What's the harm in watching someone tossed from a helicopter, or a casual discussion of a possible sexual assault? Plenty, says Almog. He knows critics of reality TV are seen as "nudniks, or eggheads. Because you're either a Maccabee or a Hellenist." While he sees some positives in the genre, like families learning to reduce their overdrafts in Mishpaha Horeget, or Survivor's emphasis on multiculturalism, "there's also a very negative latent message: being greedy or manipulative. No one is honest. This is an awful message and a very American one. The same is true in The Bachelor or The Bachelorette: You see the couple almost having sex, and they act like lovers, but then finally you discover it's all a show... You put them up front and convey the message that these are among the virtues that should be admired in Israeli society." It was his concern about this, particularly on Big Brother, that led to his blistering attack on the show and its host, Erez Tal, in his Ynet blog. Ynet refused to run the piece, saying it "wasn't good enough." The Web site didn't respond to a request for a response. In the piece, he wrote: "Erez Tal's smile is also the smile of the commercial channels," which he said sent a message that "we know we are selling you absolute junk and you're stupid consumers who enjoy programs about nobodies. But if we're successful with it, why not?... We've exchanged our consciences for this cynical smile, and we are about to leave those who follow in our footsteps scorched earth." Too harsh? Almog doesn't think so. Reality TV, he argues, is "spiritual junk food" and those already seeing its impact are "the people in education, who are receiving the outcome of the media revolution... an entire generation of young people who've never read a book and have major difficulties expressing themselves." Big Brother also teaches disrespect for authority, Almog argues. "You have no respect for anyone - your parents, your teachers, your boss - because the media is telling you that everything's just a total laugh, there's nothing to respect or honor... What I say is that this Big Brother, with Erez Tal, is just one example. If you laugh, if you're cynical, ironic about everything, then in some way you don't have any seriousness in your life... So I see Big Brother as a metaphor for the attitude of this age - cynical about everything." Almog rejected charges of racism he says Tal made against him during an interview on Channel 2 educational TV's Tik Tikshoret, where he said Almog prefers his Oriental characters like Bublil limited to comedy sketches. Almog, who says his appearance on the show was canceled at the last minute - a spokesman for the show said they decided to "attack the subject from a different angle" and gave Almog a day's notice - argues Tal and the Big Brother producers are the real racists, "because you put on a caricature of a Mizrahi. Does Bublil represent the typical Mizrahi? I know he doesn't. So you are the racists. You take out the old stereotypes and recycle them for your own purposes." TV, especially reality TV like Big Brother, simply takes existing social conflicts and airs them. "This is their fuel," says Almog. "Only bad will come of it." BENEDEK IS also concerned. "I think we're withering away in terms of how we think, ethically, the subjects that interest us. And TV is the drug - there's no other way to reach every home and brainwash people." The low level is noticeable on children's channels, too, he says. "Even when I was growing up there were better shows. It's a symptom of how our values have been lowered. The State of Israel is selling out its values to the highest bidder." Survivor, he says, is "a modern version of gladiators, Big Brother just getting people in a room and letting them go at each other. We know people's natural inclination is to be drawn to such things, but we don't have to encourage it all the time. Isn't it time to read a book? Why not make dramas out of Israeli books - there are really great ones. The TV doesn't even care, because it's not profitable, it doesn't make good business sense. You can't expect a business concern to do it - you have to see to it that the government forces them to do so." "I have no problem with people sitting and watching Bublil," says Benedek, echoing his fellow actors like Yoram Hatab and Gila Almagor, who have also been outspoken on the issue. "It can be a part of what's offered. But if only people were to get the proper dosage, it would open them up [to other things]. "If someone watches Big Brother, the pace, the influence it has a person, the animalistic nature of it, eats away at his ability to enjoy slower programs which have different qualities. And it trickles down to the way we live our lives, and that's why our roads look the way they do. By watching other things of a higher standard, we develop new ways of thinking... not everything's spoon-fed; one has to think." WAIT A MINUTE, say the reality defenders, aren't the critics getting a little too high on their horses to criticize something so successful? And isn't there anything positive to be found? After all, Dr. Yariv Ben-Eliezer, a media expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, says: "Some people expect television to fill our heads. It's the other way around - television empties our heads. This is the nature of the medium - it's entertaining, not educational. The reality shows are a form of entertainment which, if you judge by the ratings, lots of people like. So who are we to say it's wrong? "Anyone who objects to reality shows or any other entertainment programs can always simply switch to another station. There are lots of option for anybody who doesn't like Big Brother. However, a large number of people watch Big Brother and Survivor, which means that both programs satisfy the needs of that part of the population. "People have a rough time in Israel, not just because of the war, but economically, etc. TV empties your head; it's an escapist medium. Whoever wants to escape... fine with me. It's up to the free market to decide." What about the impact on our values? "No, no, that's crap," says producer Paran. "This is terrific television. It's not degrading anything. The point is, what else and how much [is on]. Why shouldn't people watch what the entire world is watching and enjoying... I think there's room for both of them, but in the right proportion... And I, as someone over 60, think television is the right medium to introduce new ideas all the time. If you lose sleep over your old ideas, you have a problem. So don't blame Big Brother - blame yourself if you cannot adapt to the new trend. You can't stay in the past, but keep things in proportion, that's all." Hashagrir participant Oppenheimer even believes the ultimate victory of Shifra over Bublil shows the good in society. "Everybody almost gave up the fight, and then people said: 'No, this can't be our face, Israel's face,' and people fought to get someone who reflects their values to win. So I do see it as something important. "The fact that so many people decided that they didn't want Yossi as their winner and they do want Shifra shows that there are some values that they do rate over others which they completely reject. And it's very important, especially in terms of [the cases involving president Moshe] Katsav and [MK Haim] Ramon... You have the Israeli people essentially saying: 'We will not have this man as our leader.' "But we should look at what this TV era reflects and learn from it. We shouldn't just dismiss it and say it's low popular culture... We should see what it says about us, where we're going, not just wash our hands of it and say this is just what's popular today." SO JUST HOW do we vote the reality shows off our island, or at least get the tsunami to recede? While no one's offering us immunity, most of our experts see some hope. "Once we had Ricky Lake and Jerry Springer and they were so yellow you can't even describe them. But people got sick and tired of them," says Ben-Eliezer. "The moment it stops satisfying you, you're going to look for another alternative." He also advises parents to watch the reality shows with their children and discuss what they're seeing. "Don't use television simply as a babysitter," he cautions. "The sitcom ruled for a while and then left," says Oppenheimer. "This is the genre ruling now, and it will also leave... when that need to have a sort of local hero every three months is fulfilled, then we can go on to other things." "The problem is once something does well, they all jump on the bandwagon and do too much of it," says Paran. "Culturally, this is very primitive and bad. We don't have the brakes to stop for a minute and look at the whole picture, the long run... So reality certainly has a place, but they're going to ruin it by overdoing it, and that's a pity, because it's a great genre for television." "The current situation won't continue forever," says Benedek, "People will begin to understand that there's importance when it comes to the content - it has an impact." As for the potential strike threat, he says: "Fulfill the agreement [on programming] and we'll be quiet. Let's finally see a brave communications minister who'll do something." Lawyer Man, however, backs a more direct approach: Take the government, which is responsible for the channels, to court. "If the actors, producers or even viewers who have rights under the legislation or think the legislation [regarding the percentage of quality programming shown] has been violated, they can petition the High Court of Justice, applying for a remedy and forcing the authority to exercise its powers. And I think the door is now open to file class action suits against all the franchise holders for noncompliance with the law." Almog says those who seek a new reality of more intelligent programming will have to fight to be the survivors in the current TV kulturkampf, and sees rising support for his position on the Web, an anti-reality tribal council of sorts. "I do believe in... social wisdom, and sometimes when people realize that something's become an epidemic, they will respond. What happens with trash is that it bores you very quickly - then you will want to consume better things." Indulge in Survivor or Big Brother, but set some limits, warns Almog. "You've got to have the right portion you want to consume and be aware of the price you might pay. I'm not saying escapism is bad, particularly here. But it's like Maimonides said: Find the middle road. "Criticize, criticize. Take responsibility... We can't wait for the owners to comply with our message, because they will not, like factory owners with pollution. It's the duty of the authorities, and ours to push them to do what they should do." As for Paran - who foresaw the reality craze's potential here years ago - he summarizes the reality TV balance sheet with a smile by saying: "It's a big step for television, but a small step for humankind."


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