June 09, 2000 12:33pm
German 'Big Brother' Show Ends
by: Burt Herman
(BERLIN) -- It ignited heated debates over morality, created instant celebrities and gave hundreds of thousands of loyal fans a voyeuristic thrill week after week.
When the German edition of the Orwellian TV reality show ``Big Brother'' ends Friday night after 100 days, and the last remaining roommate collects his or her $120,000, the real winner will be the television station that has scored its highest ratings ever. The loser: German culture and any semblance of respect for human dignity, critics say.
It started in March when 10 intrepid residents moved into the Big Brother house outside Cologne - the ``container'' as it's been dubbed by German media - pledging to spend every second of their lives under the eyes of 28 cameras.
Even infrared cameras used in their bedrooms at night insured that not a moment would be missed, while the residents themselves were kept out of touch with the outside world.
Since then, the show has made possible the meteoric rise to stardom of an unemployed mechanic who didn't know who Shakespeare was, a love affair that had the tabloids all atwitter, inspired a nationwide campaign against one whiny resident, and became a police drama with revelations of one resident's criminal past and unpaid fines.
Along the way, according to the rules of the show imported from the Netherlands, residents every other week nominated two candidates to leave the house. Then viewers could vote by phone to determine who should go.
With just three residents left, the viewers have been voting since Sunday for their favorite to win the prize.
For station RTL II, normally known for airing soft pornography in the evening, the show has been the most successful since it went on the air in 1993.
The peak came May 18 when more than 7 million viewers tuned in to see German sex symbol Verona Feldbusch - who became famous hosting a soft-porn magazine show on the same network - spend a day in the container. Producers even helicoptered in an outhouse just for her, because of her specifications to keep the most private elements of her life private.
Its success caused the U.S. network CBS to pay a reported $20 million for the rights to the show, which is to air from July 6-Sept. 30.
Before it started in Germany, media regulators had threatened the show with a ban saying it offended human dignity, protected in Germany's constitution.
And just as it began, criticism erupted again as the show went into its final episode.
The governor of Rhineland-Palatinate state and chairman of the state media commissions, Kurt Beck, told the Saarbrueker Zeitung in its Friday issue that the program ``played a cynical game with people's private sphere'' and called for a code of ethics for electronic media.
Thomas Bohrmann, a professor specializing in social ethics at Munich University, is planning to write an academic paper with his criticisms of the show.
``Not all things you can show on TV are good for a society,'' Bohrmann said.
The station rejects the criticism as ``overblown'' and keeps pointing to the success of ``Big Brother.''
``It is the big show,'' said Matthias Trenkle, a spokesman for RTL II. Young people ``don't want to see the Saturday evening show we used to see for years and years where everything is fixed. ... They want to see real people.''
Even debate over the winner has polarized the country.
The longtime favorite has been Juergen, a 36-year-old autoworker from Cologne, who has said on the show he's trying to win the prize for his daughter.
But Juergen was condemned by the Tagesspiegel newspaper Friday as a typical German afraid to show his emotions.
``It's exactly like the uncle whose visit we always fear because all the fun is immediately gone,'' the paper wrote.
The left-leaning Tageszeitung urged viewers to vote for John, a 26-year-old carpenter from eastern Germany and former squatter, as a vote for a ``more civil society.''
Whatever the results Friday, it won't be the end of Big Brother in Germany. RTL II is seeking residents for Big Brother II, set to return to the airwaves this September. A U.S. version is set to premiere next month.