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''Big Brother'' is the latest voyeur TV decadence

Ken Tucker offers his thoughts on the state of 24-7 surveillance

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”Big Brother” is the latest voyeur TV decadence

If only ”Big Brother,” the new CBS ”Survivor” add-on premiering Wednesday at 9 p.m., had been on the air when Sen. John McCain had been conducting his Presidential run, he might now be the Republican nominee. After all, who better to offer authoritative soundbites on a show about 10 people kept captive in a 1800-square-foot home with constant surveillance and no access to telephones, newspapers, or even pencils and paper than McCain, an authentic prisoner of war hero?

Using the show as a political issue in the great tradition of Dan Quayle and ”Murphy Brown,” McCain — who, unlike the ”Big Brother” contestants, was not a voluntary prisoner, suffered grueling torture, and didn’t have a $500,000 potential jackpot waiting for him at the end of his captivity — might have offered stinging opinions on this Swedish import, the latest example of casual summertime voyeuristic decadence.

As it is, ”Big Brother” will probably find its most severe test among the mass TV audience. I know it’s summer vacation time and many people don’t have much to do, but will the same millions who tune in to ”Survivor” once a week make a commitment to watch ”Big Brother”’s pervasive broadcasts (after this week’s premiere, it will air nightly except Wednesdays and Sundays, at 8 p.m.)? I predict a lot of tune out around the dog days of late July and early August.

With the regularly shrinking pool of five women and five men followed by 28 cameras and 60 microphones (once a week, two housemates will be expelled, and on the final night, the TV audience — us! — will phone in our vote for the half-mil winner), I searched the rules for a loophole that might help the contestants maintain their sanity AND remain likable enough to remain in the running for the cash prize.

My solution? Contestants can bring a book, and had I been around when the ”Brother”ites were selected, I’d have suggested that one of them bring along ”The Faber Popular Reciter,” a classic poetry anthology edited by the late Kingsley Amis. How better to impress the viewing audience of one’s sincerity and fortitude than to read (or, even better given the spare time on one’s hands, commit to memory and recite into the camera) such stalwart poems as Yeats’ ”Easter 1916” (”Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart…”), Kipling’s ”If” (”If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs…”), Tennyson’s stirring ”The Charge of the Light Brigade,” or A.C. Ainger’s need-I-say-more ”God Is Working His Purpose Out”?

I’d watch every night and phone in a vote of $500,000 to anyone who’d quote Emily Bronte’s ”The Old Stoic” on nationwide television: ”Riches I hold in light esteem/ And Love I laugh to scorn/ And lust of Fame was but a dream/ That vanished with the morn…”