August 31, 2000

Survival of the Nudist

Print More

If ABC hit a home run last summer with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, then CBS surely whacked a grand slam with Survivor. Starting with the first episode early last June, a station that had traditionally appealed to the Depends crowd almost immediately became an advertiser’s mecca. Appealing to the highly coveted 18-49 age demographic, the reality game-show became the marketplace for trendy ads from Reebok and Bud Light. And as the ratings continued to grow (to over 50 million viewers by season’s end), the Eye network’s executives rejoiced, confident that younger viewers would be more likely to tune into their fall fare. If Regis Philbin applied a bandage to ABC’s prime time wounds last summer, then I think it’s valid to say that Richard Hatch pressed his warm lips against the cold, breathless mouth of CBS … and blew real hard. (Rudy Boesch helped as well, but “in a non-homosexual way,” of course.)

Yet besides the hope it has given to CBS, Survivor did more for television than to just revitalize a single network. It got web-savvy Americans interested in the tube again. With Who Wants to Be a Millionaire growing stale, and mostly reruns on the other networks, we gladly welcomed a long-overdue groundbreaking show into our living rooms.

But Survivor’s true appeal wasn’t because of the lack of other programming options. More importantly, Survivor survived and thrived because of the sheer brilliance of its casting, production, and marketing. And although it was arguably hokey at times, it still always worked. The idea was an intelligent one, the people selected for the show were perfect … and CBS never forced the “reality formula” on its viewers.

That is, the voice-over in the show’s opening sequence didn’t sound like this: “This is true story of 16 castaways picked to live on an island.” Instead, it was honest and upfront: 16 people are vying to win a million dollars. And despite the fact that some other shows have the “R” word in the title, Survivor was the only non-fiction program that actually seemed real. The producers were clever, in that they added something that would effortlessly bring out the reality from the cast. Mo’ money, mo’ human drama.

So America watched while tribes battled passionately, alliances formed, backs were stabbed, and people got told off. The goings-on did mirror corporate life in America, and even aspects of campus life here at Cornell. And sure, we typecasted certain characters, but they were never laughably pigeonholed like some are on The Real World and Road Rules. Survivor’s careful and cogent editing process ultimately precluded that from happening, since personal interviews were nicely balanced among the castaways. We usually heard both sides of the story — not just the one the editors wanted us to see.

The episodes were also well-paced and always captivating, despite the fact that, a lot of the time, not much really happened until the tribal council convened. So it just must have been those well-selected characters who held our interest through the slow moments. Kudos to the casters who may have predicted that the dynamics between Rudy and Richard would be so lovably odd or that Colleen would be such a sweetheart. But also the production crew should be very grateful for some things they couldn’t have possibly forecasted, like the fact that rats would be eaten, that Jenna’s video wouldn’t arrive in time, and that the million dollar prize would come down to a single vote.

But before the industry hops on the bandwagon and tries to replicate the most-watched summer series ever, let’s head back to fall 1999 for a quick Hollywood history lesson. Riding on the coattails of ABC’s enormously successful game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the rest of the big networks bombarded us with clones like Greed, Winning Lines, and Twenty-One. But while all these programs closely resembled the lighting, format, and prizes of Millionaire, they ended up as virtual ratings flops.

So, with that in mind, don’t expect America to embrace Big Brother for much longer, especially after it lost its ratings-friendly Survivor lead-in. Besides, the people on the show have no chemistry, good or bad. The camerawork is stagnant, and the show is just plain boring. (Yet it’s hard to blame the crew, because they only have a day’s worth of footage to work with, while shows like Survivor have the luxury of several months’ editing time.) Fox already gave up on its high school documentary American High. Although critically acclaimed, the program quickly dropped to the bottom of the Nielsens. And after only two weeks, it was canceled.

How does this all bode for the future of reality-based television? It’s likely that we’ll continue to see an onslaught from this genre in the wake of Survivor’s immense popularity. But it’s also improbable that any series will have the draw that Survivor did, and so many will get voted off as quickly as they come. There is one hopeful, however. Survivor II: The Australian Outback is set to air immediately following the Superbowl. But even that series will have a difficult time living up to the original. After all, could anyone ever say a line as potent as the one uttered by a bitter Susan Hawk to Kelly Wiglesworth?:

“… If I was ever to pass you along in life again and you were laying there dying of thirst, I would not give you a drink of water. I would let the vultures take you and do whatever they want with you …”

Not likely.

Archived article by David Kaplan