By MELODY SUCHAREWICZ
In Italy it first saw light in 2000. As with shoe fashion, the journey to Israel took another eight years, but the arrival was bombastic. Veni vidi vici: Big Brother came, Big Brother saw, and Big Brother conquered - the ratings especially.
The show is a cultural phenomenon - a sociological-anthropological case study for beginners. The attention of the media, audience and academics naturally goes to where the action (or inaction) is: the Big Brother house, with its mini-dramas, maxi-sensations and multi-emptiness or trivial day-to-day interactions among people with a questionable potential for constructive social impulse. But the mini, maxi, multi show is lame in comparison to what we can learn about its unconditionally loyal Israeli audience.
So let's shift the attention from the cage to the viewers, who consistently generate an average 30 percent weekly rating. Who are they? In-depth analyses on what happened in the last episode or the nonstop Big Brother Channel on HOT heats classrooms, chat rooms and Knesset corridors. Big Brother viewers are of all ages, classes and professions - which hints at an even more important question: a 30% rating on account of what?
Last February, more people voted for contestants on the show than were registered to vote in that month's primary elections. And it gets worse. At the beginning of December, a documentary was aired showing the Schalit family's efforts to secure the release of their son Gilad, kidnapped by Hamas in June 2006. This Channel 10 documentary, A Family in Captivity, was watched by 10.6% of viewers, while Channel 2's Big Brother episode in the same time slot had a rating of 26.1%. So a clear majority preferred watching the morally questionable human zoo over an intimate insight into Gilad Schalit's family.
THIS CULTURAL phenomenon shapes the values, language and actions especially of the young, and its icons become a source of imitation. The problem with Big Brother and other sensationalist reality shows is that the cultural icons they generate hardly know how to spell the word culture. The star of the first Big Brother season was a man in his 50s, the father of another contestant and a man undoubtedly deserving the Nobel Prize for vulgarity.
The equation is simple even to non-mathematicians: Big Brother + 30% rating + Israel = A reason to worry. It is this equation, and the social, ideological, moral void it reflects, that should be discussed in Knesset corridors and committees. If programs like Big Brother dominate the culture fed to Israel's young generation in their leisure time, we should not be surprised if the number of draft-dodgers further increases in correlation with the level of unmotivated individualism.
Young people need some kind of philosophical impulse to reach their potential as future leaders and guardians of their country's values - and in Israel's case, its existence. Today, the media scenery - a powerful transmitter of such impulses - is void of any such crucial impact.
An exception is State-owned Channel 1, a lonesome and barely surviving warrior in the field of high-quality, horizon-opening info-tainment.
THE GOOD news: For once, Israel is not alone. It is being hit by a degenerating media culture no more than are other countries, including Italy.
The bad news: Israel can't afford it. It can't afford to have its future leaders, soldiers and ambassadors draw their sociocultural inspiration from Big Brother, when the country is under constant global attack in the soft (media) wars of the 21st century and in a far-from-harmony-ridden geopolitical context. These circumstances require a boost of national self-confidence and strength, and information - not dogma! - about this young country's success stories and global contributions in the field of science, technology, culture, environmental protection and humanitarian aid.
I don't know of a single TV program that highlights Israel's high achievers, while too many celebrate its low and non-achievers. Israel's secret for survival and success is no longer a secret: Human capital may not be taken for granted; it's not DNA, but memes (cultural genes) that perpetuate it. Israel's human capital must be cultivated and empowered by all available means - the media being one of them, possibly the most powerful.
> The writer is a spokesperson and adviser for public diplomacy and international relations in Israel. She is the winner of Israel's The Ambassador TV competition of 2006.
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