While on vacation in the States, I found myself watching the finale of "Survivor," the climax of a summer of reality TV. I could have turned it off. I could have returned to my book. But no. I had been (blissfully) ignorant of all that had gone on before, but that didn't matter. I watched both it and the roundup reunion in which the 16 participants recounted their experience on the island and their appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman." To make matters worse, I found myself reading cover features about them in major magazines and browsing related Web sites. I didn't want to, I knew it was bad for me, but I was transfixed -- less by the participants and more by the bigger picture, an expansive tableau that includes the precedent of MTV's "The Real World," the concurrent "Big Brother" phenomenon and the whole Web-camera explosion.

On the most obvious level, "Survivor" and "Big Brother" have succeeded by wiring our voyeuristic tendencies into the game-show formula. Beyond this, these shows have produced working models of interactive TV/Net entertainment. Their official Web sites consistently attracted heavy traffic -- the U.K. " Big Brother" site reportedly logged 10 million hits in one day. This is because viewers aren't merely fans; they're amateur psychologists and bookies, hungry for background, stats, feedback, etc. Ping-ponging between the tube and the computer, they are participating in a grand -- detractors would say vulgar -- social experiment.

This is especially true in the case of "Big Brother," which not only invites viewers to play judge and jury, deciding who is banished and who wins the money, but also to view live 24/7 feeds of the house. Welcome to immersion TV. You'll probably want to tune in to "Big Brother" Webfeeds in coming weeks since emotions are high. And if these don't do it for you, you might try the sites of their somewhat racier European cousins.