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We have met the product, and it is ourselves
(CNN) -- This summer's reality TV programs, which have drawn critics as well as viewers, are more than just shows giving us an intimate view of other peoples' lives.
They reflect a change in this wired economy -- a new example of "people power."
Inside CBS' "Big Brother" house or on its "Survivor" island, there are no professional actors and scriptwriters to pay. Instead, producers have adopted the idea of the "self-organizing" community. They're the ultimate dream of any business -- an enterprise in which the public makes the product.
"The customer is creating the experience, is creating the entertainment," says Bernd Schmitt, author of "Experiential Marketing" and a business professor at Columbia University.
"That is very modern -- I could even say post-modern -- because it is about interactions, about creating a reality through conversations, though discourse, and that is the product."
Some might say this is not a new trend. After all, ever since telephones were invented, people talking have provided the content for the profit-seeking telephone companies and their shareholders.
But today, digital technology is rapidly increasing the power -- and magnitude -- of ordinary people to create products and markets in other fields.
Take auctions, for example, one of the oldest of human transactions. Whether it involves millions of dollars for a painting at Sotheby's or $20 a fund raiser for the local school, the number of sellers and bidders has always been limited.
The Internet, which removes technical limits on the marketplace, changed all that.
eBay was just a matter of time. Five years ago the company did not exist. Then it wired up a Web site, and today it's the world's largest auction house, an enterprise valued at $15 billion.
And it doesn't manufacture anything. The community of eBay users is the content; the company simply takes a small cut of the money that other people are spending.
And look at a stock exchange, the purest form of a marketplace. Online trading by individual investors, encouraged and empowered by the ease and speed of the Internet, has created new online trading companies. They have produced nothing more, or less, than a community, from which the company earns money.
Trend or fad?
Of course, people with shared interests have always organized themselves for some purpose. But in this summer of 2000, where do we put reality television? Is it a new low in our community living?
Or are we seeing something important -- a trend, not a fad?
"What is happening is that a human desire that has always been there is now put to the marketplace and is becoming commercialized," Schmitt says. "And customers are enjoying being part of that commercial experience on a global basis."
Perhaps that's the insight into reality television. It's not only that viewers wants to be part of the lives of a few people in a house, on TV and online; they actually seem happy to be part of the commercial experience.
It's the business behind "Big Brother" or "Survivor," the quest for fame and a small fortune and what people will go through to get them. That is today's true reality.
'Reality' TV: The changing faces of fame
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