Washington Post Foreign Service
By Anne Swardson
Saturday, September 25, 1999; Page A01
ALMERE, Netherlands, Sept. 24-In a prefabricated one-story house in this warehouse district east of Amsterdam, eight captive Dutch people are exploring the outer limits of reality television.
The group has agreed to spend 100 days shut up without visitors, news, telephone or other communication with the outside. They have television, but only from the wrong end: They’re on it.
Every move, every meal, every harsh word, is videotaped 24 hours a day and then compiled into a half-hour prime-time program called “Big Brother” that virtually everybody in this country is watching. The Almere Eight also are live full-time on the Internet.
To keep audiences transfixed every night, the show’s producers have added a generous dose of what some might call sadism (they call it group dynamics). For instance, six of the original nine will have been evicted one by one before the show ends on New Year’s Eve. The departees are nominated by the other residents and then winnowed out by the viewing public, whose verdict is announced live on national television.
A $118,000 prize awaits the winner, who will be chosen from the three finalists on Dec. 31 — if they can last that long — as the clock ticks toward the new millennium.
First out the door was Martin, a 25-year-old self-employed businessman. He was given the boot Thursday evening as 1.5 million viewers watched live. He was teary but accepted his fate. Many felt Martin had it coming. He and Bart, 22, both had fallen for the winsome Sabine, 25, and then Martin had said Bart was gay, which he isn’t.
“A lot of people think he did it to get Sabine,” said Ruban Groan, a 24-year-old Amsterdam student who admits he has become addicted to the program since it premiered on Sept. 16. “It’s more fun than a soap. It’s a real soap.”
With it, the program’s producers have created what every designer of television and Internet content dreams of in today’s fragmented media world: a nationally shared experience, something everyone in the office talks about the next day.
“What surprised me was that so soon, after three days, the characters were living in our society,” said executive producer Paul Romer. “I thought they would take more time to develop on the screen.” He said there is nothing particularly Dutch about the program, although the prostitutes displaying their wares in the picture windows of Amsterdam’s red-light district serve as a reminder that people here don’t necessarily mind being watched.
Rather, Romer said, “Big Brother” comes at a time when what was formerly considered voyeurism has become a staple of mainstream entertainment and people are searching for others to identify with — in this case, a random selection of white, middle-class Netherlanders. The program airs on a hip youth channel named Veronica.
” ‘Big Brother’ could not have been done 10 years ago,” Romer said. “It is right for where we are in place and time.”
In the United States, television viewers have MTV’s “The Real World,” in which real people allow portions of their lives to be filmed. Many Americans broadcast their lives on the Internet every day; one of the best known is Jennifer Ringley, a Washington resident who created a site called Jennicam.org in 1997 to share her daily doings — for a fee of $15 a year — with Web watchers around the world. Internet addicts also have Voyeur Dorm, in which seven Florida coeds allowed cameras into their joint residence at all times.
In the 1991 Biosphere 2 experiment in the Arizona desert, eight men and women discovered just how hard it is to live together alone — in that case, inside an airtight glass and steel geodesic dome that sought to replicate the Earth’s environment. To those concepts, “Big Brother” adds imprisonment, isolation, deprivation and monitoring by psychologists in case something goes wrong.
Martin, Bart, Sabine, Tara, Bianca and the others were selected from 3,000 applicants in a two-month-long process designed, Romer said, to create the most interesting group dynamics possible. Then they received six weeks of extensive orientation and preparation for what was to follow. Anyone can leave the house at any time, and they will receive psychological monitoring for as long afterward as they wish.
In choosing their stars, the show’s designers created specific role models and then sought to fill them. Ruud, for instance, is the father figure. At age 44, he tries to keep the group coordinated and the house running. Today, for instance, he cut the grass around the garden fence with a pair of scissors, seemingly oblivious to the tall tarpaulin fence that surrounds the entire complex.
Inside, Bianca was supervising the preparation of the joint grocery list. All food, including bread, must be prepared by hand. The grocery allowance is only $85 per week, though a vegetable garden in the back yard provides some greens, and a few chickens wander through the grass and lay the occasional egg. The show’s staff members do the shopping and slip groceries in through a private entrance without making contact with the residents.
The residents live under many requirements. Each day, every one of them must come to the “diary room” for at least five minutes. There, they talk to the camera, to a producer or to a psychologist — two are on call. The others cannot hear them. It was in the diary room that Ruud told the producers, under heavy questioning, that Bianca had a watch even though timepieces are forbidden. She denied it, then said she had an old one but it was broken.
Elsewhere in the house, 59 microphones and 24 television cameras pick up everything the residents do and say. A few concessions were made to their privacy. The producer of the show, John de Mol Productions, is keeping their last names a secret. Their trips to the bathroom will be on camera in the control room for security reasons and to prevent secret meetings, but not broadcast. Nor will the fronts of showering ladies.
Everything else is seemingly fair game. Ruud, for example, walks through the living room naked each morning. And were Sabine and Bart to consummate their promising relationship, the act theoretically could be shown on TV or the Internet.
The unedited Internet version, which works only intermittently these days because the Web site is in so much demand, runs on a short time delay. The site, www.big-brother.nl, is the most-visited in the Netherlands. Producers thought they would get 6 million hits over the entire 100 days; they have already gotten that many. There is a page on each resident, chat groups and popularity ratings.
More than 50,000 people phoned in or voted by Internet to select the first resident to exit. Contestants will be voted out every two weeks or so until only three remain on New Year’s Eve. The producers have been seriously courted by media interests in Spain, Germany and Britain with an eye to developing similar experiments in group living elsewhere.
More torture awaits the inhabitants of 22 Bolderweg St. They will be allowed to watch television once — but will have to choose between an important qualifying game of the Dutch national soccer team and two video movies. They will be allowed one three-minute phone call — but the person who makes the call must be chosen unanimously.
They are watched over by a crew of 107 people, working three shifts a day. In the Internet control room, the techies have developed a feeling of kinship with people they have never met but watch all day long. “In the end, we know them better than they know themselves,” said a staffer named Robert. “But everybody has their secrets, you can’t know everything. Every day has a surprise.”
Staff researcher Neal Becton in Washington contributed to this report.