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Fishbowl view of seven young Russians spawns tempest

Is Moscow's first reality TV show a cultural mirror or pornography?

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Russia's first experiment in reality TV has won mega-ratings, but that's nothing compared to the storm of social debate it has triggered.

The racy "Behind the Glass," which ended its run over the weekend, locked seven young Russians into a glass apartment for 34 days, with viewers voting out one participant each week.

Critics, including the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, have called the show everything from pornography to badly-acted farce. But the producers say the show is merely a mirror held up to the post-Soviet generation of Russian youth.

The show's 20-somethings had audiences agape at their unfettered conversation, angry quarrels, and sexual display.

"We find people divided almost equally over the morality of showing such things on TV," says Yelena Bashkirova, director of the independent ROMIR agency, which surveyed public opinion on the program. "But almost everyone seems to have watched it."

The penchant of two female participants for running around the apartment semi-nude sparked angry letters to newspapers and heated talk show discussion.

"This show has opened some issues about what is appropriate on TV, and when, which are very similar to long-standing controversies in the West," says Yury Podtserkovsky, an analyst with the Komkon marketing agency. "This is a clear sign that Russia has entered the market world."

Excerpts were broadcast four times a day, including prime time, and viewers could watch 24 hours a day on a website.

"I find this much more interesting than soap opera, because it's real," says music student Maria Plisetskaya. But schoolteacher Svetlana Khmelnikova called the show a "poor quality soap opera."

Director Grigory Lubomirov acknowledges that the success of such hits as "Survivor" in the US led him to persuade Russia's independent TV-6 network to take a chance on "Behind the Glass." But he insists that his inspiration came from a Soviet-era novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin, who wrote of a futuristic society in which everyone lived in glass houses with no way to conceal even their most intimate actions from a watching world. "This was deep sociological and psychological research," says Mr. Lubomirov. "And we have learned that the older generation of Russians do not understand the first free generation of Russian kids at all."

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