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CBS’s ‘Big Brother’ is watching

The latest ‘reality’ show begins airing Wednesday night

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If you listen carefully, you can hear George Orwell spinning in his grave.

In "1984," the novelist introduced Big Brother, a sort of evil twin of Santa Claus who knew when you were sleeping, knew when you were awake and knew if you'd been bad or good. And if you were bad, for goodness' sake, you got a lot worse than coal in your stocking.

Now this insidious entity, in the form of 24-hour surveillance cameras and microphones, has come to life in "Big Brother" (8 p.m. Wednesday, 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Ch. 5), an international phenomenon that rivals "Survivor" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in impact and exceeds both of them in sheer, what'll-they-think-of-next weirdness.

The program, which originated in the Netherlands last year and was quickly cloned in Germany and Spain, will cross the ocean this week on the good ship CBS, which is launching it right after the hugely popular "Survivor."

"Big Brother" puts 10 strangers in a house for three months, a la "The Real World," and invites the public to watch every move and eavesdrop on every whisper. But the terms are tougher and the stakes higher than in the MTV series: The house is custom-built to be almost as inhospitable as "Survivor's" desert island, and except for a bit of yard work, the participants aren't allowed to set foot outside it. The minute they do, they forfeit a chance at the $500,000 prize.

As in "Survivor," the players periodically vote to eject one of their own until a single winner remains. The twist is that the home audience gets to vote, too: The inmates nominate two potential exiles, and viewers decide which one gets the hook.

The first "Big Brother," dreamed up by a Dutch entertainment conglomerate, held the Netherlands captive every night for months. Apart from the frenzy that surrounds the World Cup, there's never been anything to rival it in popularity, says Ronald Ockenhuys, a film and TV critic for the Amsterdam daily De Volkskrant.

"At first we were very skeptical about it," Ockenhuys says. "Ten ordinary people in a house? But, you know, it's hard to explain, but it's interesting to watch the boring lives of boring people.

"It was — you know the word 'banal'? Yes? Banal. But it was also fascinating."

Literally overnight, the show's young, attractive participants became tabloid darlings. Around water coolers from Groningen to Rotterdam, the morning chit-chat turned to speculation about Sabine, Bart, Andrea, Jurgen and the rest.

As contrived as the series might have been, Ockenhuys and millions of others couldn't tear themselves away.

"I have to admit that even intellectuals were debating it," he says. "A lot of people loved it, and a lot of people said it was the end of conventional television." CBS' "Big Brother" is being made with the involvement of the Dutch producers and will closely resemble the original. One change: The nudity shown freely in the European version will be edited out for "prudish Americans," as one of the producers told a Dutch newspaper.

The show's Studio City, Calif., house, constructed on a lot not far from the old "Gilligan's Island" set, is described on the network's Web site (http://www.cbs.com) as a "sparse, utilitarian structure" with no phones, TVs, computers or other niceties.

Hot water will be available for just two hours a day. Small amounts of food will be delivered to the inmates, but they'll be required to grow vegetables, bake bread and even tend chickens if they don't want to go hungry.

As in "Survivor," the group will be confronted with challenges to test their team spirit and ingenuity.

"Failure," the Web site warns darkly, "could mean meager rations."

Sixty microphones and 28 cameras, including several equipped with night vision, will be trained on the inmates "every minute of every hour of every day in every room, including the shower." While the footage will be edited down to just five hours a week for television, several cameras will stream live on the Internet for round-the-clock viewing.

Fortunately for the network, "Survivor" hasn't exhausted the nation's supply of exhibitionists. Would-be surveillance subjects sent the producers some 1,100 audition tapes.

Back on the other side of the Atlantic, the German and Spanish editions of "Big Brother" were thumping successes. Great Britain, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland have all signed up for their own versions.

And in September, the Dutch will meet "Big Brother's" younger brother as a second edition begins.

Culture in the Netherlands will survive, Ockenhuys predicts, but not without change.

Producers are already contemplating a Dutch version of "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire," he notes, "but that one got in trouble in your country, didn't it?"

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service.