Greeks surrender without a struggle to ‘Big Brother’

At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve this week, as Prime Minister Costas Simitis withdrew the first euro notes in Greece from the Bank of Greece at a formal ceremony televised live around the country, the majority of the viewing public was glued to the private television channel Antenna, to see who would be the winner in «Big Brother,» the Greek version of the reality show that is shown in different guises in several countries. In September of last year, 12 people voluntarily incarcerated themselves in a specially designed «home» near Paeania, outside Athens. They had no telephones, televisions or radios and no contact with anyone in the outside world apart from the show’s host Andreas Mikroutsikos. Every couple of weeks one of the group was voted out by their roommates and the viewing public. On New Year’s Eve, it was down to the two last occupants – Giorgos Triantafyllidis, aka Tsakas, and Prodromos Kathiniotis. The show might not have been to everyone’s taste, but on New Year’s Eve, 80 percent of viewers were tuned into Antenna – a figure more reminiscent of opinion polls in Latin American dictatorships. The good news is that only 38 percent of the public were watching television at all in the last 15 minutes of 2001, but even they were aware that Tsakas and Prodromos were fighting it out for the grand prize of 50 million drachmas. (For those who have been out of the country, Tsakas won.) The party that followed was true to the spirit of the program itself; songs by Giorgos Lebesis, Pontic lyre music and a song composed by Mikroutsikos, sung by Dora, one of the former occupants of the communal home. Anna and Agni, the fiancées of the two finalists, got up on stage and talked about their feelings during the months the show lasted. Mikroutsikos made a revealing statement when he told Prodromos that he had been given no hint as to the successes of his favorite football team, AEK, so as not to slant conversation in the house. In fact, throughout their entire cohabitation period, the occupants gave no indication of their views on any subject, from politics, the events of September 11, social issues or sport. A revolution in communications «Big Brother» was the unquestioned star of this year’s television screens, not only with regard to ratings and income from advertising, but with regard to the number and variety of commentaries and debates it provoked. The high ratings forced many original critics of the show to give it grudging recognition as a pop culture phenomenon. Nevertheless, not every phenomenon in popular culture is necessarily positive. Remember «Lt. Natasha» (a 1960s film starring Aliki Vouyouklaki)? «Big Brother,» however, is another goose that lays golden eggs in the globalized farmyard of culture, or at least of its lowest common denominator. That is why it is natural that we should try to interpret it, each of us in our own way. But satire and criticism are not the same as acceptance and glorification. The television emperor is still not wearing any clothes, no matter how many people might be admiring his new garb. Big Brother has been a turning point, not only on Greek television but in the way people perceive private and public life. Unlike the New Year fireworks, the effects of reality shows such as this are likely to be around for some time. In the US, this transition was made in the 1990s with the now famous «presidential stain» on a dress. In Greece, Dimitra Papandreou-Liani, ensconced in her pink villa in Ekali, was the forerunner of the «Big Brother» phenomenon. Since the trials and tribulations of the rich and famous are no longer topping the ratings, interest has turned to the boredom and banality of the person in the street. The recent forgiveness of «Big Brother’s» sins has something to do with the fact that other channels, beginning with Mega channel and its «Bar,» soon to go on air, are getting in on the act, hoping for a piece of the action. Even after many years of research, the nature of the disease remains unknown, says Gabizon. «We know that the protein prion plays an important part, but the way in which it causes infection is still unclear. We hope to get a fuller picture.»

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