Manhattan prides itself on its eclectic hipness, like its daring fashion styles, its avant-garde theatrical performances, and the like. Now Gotham appears to be at the forefront of a new trend: It's the place to watch your neighbors having sex.
My source for this is a New York Times piece which states, "Just look out of any high-rise apartment building in Manhattan. From the businessman in Hell's Kitchen whose neighbors have been treated to nighttime views of him and his bed mates (male and female) to a couple on Fifth Avenue and 16th Street whose lovemaking is a midmorning feature for workers in a nearby building, the modest tradition of the drawing of the draperies is on the wane."
Apparently both exhibitionism and voyeurism are becoming quite the rage, and not only in America. According to another Times article, "Europeans have been leading the charge in voyeuristic 'reality based' [television] shows."
One such program is "Big Brother," the brainchild of a Dutch company, Endemol Entertainment. The program first aired in the Netherlands, spread to Germany, and now has spawned a U.S. version, to air soon on CBS. "Big Brother" places strangers - five men and five women, to begin with - together in a house for 100 days. They're all, according to the Times, "attractive young people." (Surprise.)
Cameras and microphones monitor the residents around the clock. "Producers," we learn, "look for ways to promote tension and conflict" among them. Every so often, viewers vote to get rid of a resident until only one remains; that person wins a six-figure sum of money.
A Dutch psychological organization has called the show "irresponsible and unethical," which naturally means nothing to television networks abroad - or here.
CBS also is adapting another Euro-reality program, "Survivor," in which sixteen contestants, competing for a million-dollar jackpot, get to vote one another off the island on which they're stranded. In the original version of the show, the first contestant who was dismissed committed suicide.
While they're at it, the Eye network perhaps next will pursue the U.S. rights to "Chains of Love," which debuted on Dutch television early in April. "Chains," another Endemol product, features four men and a woman bound together in handcuffs and ankle irons. Over five days, the woman releases three of the men, with the remaining man receiving money and a date with the woman. (In the interest of equal-opportunity stupidity, sometimes the show features four women and a man.)
Oh, and Endemol is working with - God help us all - Jerry Springer on a project called "Now or Never," in which Springer will, in the Times' words, "confront guests plagued by strange phobias."
Regarding the endgame for this exhibitionism, Endemol head John de Mol tells the Times, "I can't answer the question that has been asked 100,000 times, which is 'Where are the limits and how far are you going?'...You can't give a general answer to that. You have to take it on a case-by-case basis."
But there's no reason to believe the networks will set any limits for these programs as long as what happens on them involves consenting adults. The suicide taboo was shattered a year and a half ago, thanks to "60 Minutes" and Dr. Kevorkian. You can't get much more reality-based than that.
Maybe the reality genre will become more and more sexually explicit. Or maybe, like Springer's daytime sleazefest, it'll put participants in situations conducive to violence. Or maybe it'll go in some direction so tasteless no one's thought of it...yet.
Want to escape video voyeurism with a good book? Better watch out there, too. Take the exhibitionistic new memoir by actress Cybill Shepherd. In all I could stand to read - an excerpt in a recent issue of TV Guide - Shepherd declares, "I never observed the sexual canons. I did exactly as I pleased, and what pleased me was sex."
We then learn of Cybill's encounters with Elvis; with two stuntmen at the same time ("Having all the pleasure points being attended to simultaneously rather than sequentially made me feel adored, emancipated and more relaxed about sex"); and with Don Johnson ("We lasted a nanosecond on the porch and then rapidly progressed to my bed. It was like wolfing down a candy bar when you're starving - fast, furious, intense - and it was all over in five minutes").
From those anonymous Manhattanites to Cybill Shepherd, quite a few people these days need to draw their draperies.