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Mexico's Changing Society Gives High Ratings to Reality TV - 2002-06-19

Mexico's first so-called "reality television" program has been a smashing success, breaking TV ratings records despite opposition from a few social groups and initial wariness on the part of many advertisers. Some observers see the voyeuristic show's popularity in Mexico as the latest sign of an evolution away from the country's traditional social conservatism.

Late Sunday, just hours before Mexico's decisive World Cup match against the United States, a boisterous throng of people packed Mexico City's Televisa network studios. The crowd had gathered, not to watch soccer, but to cheer the concluding episode of the country's first-ever reality TV show, Big Brother.

The show mirrors other versions of Big Brother already seen in the United States and Europe. Twelve young adults were sent to live in a house loaded with strategically-placed hidden cameras that videotaped their every move and interaction. Television viewers got to see selected video clips, often involving conflict or intimacy. Viewers were encouraged to form opinions about the subjects and to call in votes as to who should be allowed to stay and who should be expelled from the house.

One hundred and six days after the show began, only four contestants remained.

With 32 percent of the vote, a 26-year-old female, who went by the name "Rocio", was declared the winner, receiving just over a quarter-million dollars and a trip to Paris.

Mexican syndicated columnist and social commentator Sergio Sarmiento says Big Brother drew a huge following.

"The success with the audience was remarkable," he said. "The show managed to get a 70 percent market share on some evenings, which is unheard of in Mexican television."

Monday, several Mexican newspapers had special sections devoted to the show's conclusion. Televisa's newscasts buried Mexico's World Cup loss to the United States, leading instead with a synopsis of the final Big Brother episode.

The success of the program raised eyebrows in Mexico, an overwhelmingly Catholic country with a tradition of social conservatism. Indeed, Televisa initially encountered problems finding sponsors for Big Brother, as advertisers shied away from a show many thought would offend mainstream Mexican society.

But, according to commentator Sergio Sarmiento, Mexican attitudes regarding questions of morality, privacy and sexuality have been transformed in recent decades. He says the change was evident long before Big Brother hit the airwaves.

"Mexican society has changed tremendously, particularly in the large cities," he said. "Mexico is not quite as socially conservative as many of our community leaders might want to think. Mexico has had a moral revolution, a sexual revolution. It has been going on for a long time and it is quite evident for anyone who wants to see it."

Mr. Sarmiento, who is also editor-in-chief of a Televisa rival, TV Azteca, says no one should be surprised by Big Brother's popularity. He says TV Azteca is planning it's own reality show for later in the year, and that other Mexican networks will likely follow suit.

"We love to watch what other people do," Mr. Sarmiento said. "People like to peep at what their neighbors are doing. People like to watch what famous people are doing. It seems an irrepressible human attitude."

Even so, Mr. Sarmiento says reality shows will one day fade in popularity, as have other television formats in the past. Then, he says, television executives will scramble to find a new formula to titillate and entertain.