Still a survivor
Top reality show defies those who predict the end
CanWest News Service
October 22, 2004
Outwit, outplay, outlast. Survivor: Vanuatu is outwitting the competition, outplaying the field and outlasting its critics. It has defied expectations and is sitting atop a reality-TV field that in recent weeks has seen The Next Great Champ go down for the count, The Benefactor come up short and Last Comic Standing vanish without a trace.
Against all odds and bucking a TV trend that has seen reality TV undergo a sobering reality check in recent weeks, Survivor is winning the survival sweepstakes in an ever-shifting television landscape that has seen steep declines for some of reality TV's most popular returnees.
Survivor: Vanuatu is averaging slightly more than 3 million viewers a week across Canada, according to figures compiled by the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement. That puts it on par with Survivor: Amazon over the five weeks it has aired so far.
Survivor: Vanuatu is averaging 19.5 million viewers a week in the U.S., down slightly from Survivor: Pearl Island's average of 20.7 million last year, and Survivor: All-Stars' 21.5 million this past spring.
Meanwhile, five of TV's most watched and talked-about reality returnees have lost viewers this season. In the U.S., where cancellation and renewal decisions are made, The Apprentice slipped to 17.5 million viewers in September, down from 20.7 million in January, according to figures compiled by Nielsen Media Research. (Interestingly, BBM numbers in Canada show that The Apprentice has stayed level, and even gained in some markets.) Even Fear Factor tumbled to 10.4 million viewers across the U.S. in September, down from 12.7 million in August.
Interest in Survivor's latest incarnation, the program's ninth, shows little sign of waning. Survivor: Vanuatu's audience last week topped that for Survivor: All-Stars' reunion episode in May, in which Rupert Boneham was awarded US$1-million by 400,000 of the show's fans. The show's longevity has confounded the experts, who assumed viewers would grow tired of immunity challenges and tribal councils after Survivor's heavily promoted All-Stars edition, which reunited players from previous editions in a winner-take-all free-for-all.
CBS research director David Poltrack admitted before Survivor: Vanuatu began that he was concerned the latest edition would seem anti-climactic after All-Stars' clash of 18 larger-than-life personalities.
"The expectations always were that it would settle back at the normal level," Poltrack said. "Our hope was that it would go back to the average, but not below the average."
Poltrack attributed Survivor's longevity to producer Mark Burnett's ability to tweak the program's format without changing its core concept and risk alienating its base of fans.
"The fortunate thing is that Mark is creatively able to fashion each one of these with twists and angles that keep them fresh," Poltrack said. "As long as there's something about the next one that makes it different and interesting and unique, I think we'll be able to hold people's focus."
David Bloomberg, editor of the all-things-reality-TV Web site RealityNewsOnline.com, says that Survivor was the first and, in his opinion, the best of the reality programs.
"It has proven itself over the course of eight seasons, and it continues to have some of the most compelling storylines and characters," Bloomberg said. "And those characters truly come from all walks of life. If you look at The Apprentice, the participants are there because they have an interest in business. The biggest difference you might find is that one person is a lawyer or a restaurant owner, instead of an Ivy League business-school graduate. On Survivor, their backgrounds are different and their goals -- other than wanting to win a million dollars -- are different, which provides for a richer mix of characters. On what other show can you see a former professor, Scout Cloud Lee, ally herself with a highway repair worker, Twila Tanner?"
Media buyer David Stanger, president and general manager of Langley, B.C.-based David Stanger & Associates, says his in-house marketing surveys show him that Survivor reaches a broad cross-section of viewers across Canada.
"It's the broadest, widest demographic imaginable," Stanger said. "I did an analysis in Saskatchewan, and there are as many farmers in rural Saskatchewan watching Survivor, as a percentage of the population, as there are people watching in Regina and Saskatoon. There's no urban-rural skew. There's no Vancouver/Toronto-vs.-the-rest-of-the-country skew. Survivor is one of the few programs on TV at the moment that gets proportionate viewing across the country."
As with anything to do with television, the end will come one day. Robert Thompson, media professor at Syracuse University, director of the school's Center for the Study of Popular Television and author of the books Prime Time, Prime Movers and Television Studies: A Textual Analysis, says it's only a matter of time, where natural selection is concerned. He admits he was proven wrong once already, however, when he predicted at the outset that Survivor would last, at most, six editions.
"This is number nine, and it's still managed to be in the top 10," Thompson said. "Sooner or later, that show is going to have to fold up the tent. There are only so many times you can squeeze in all these little permutations before they all start to look the same."
For now, Survivor is sitting comfortably atop the reality-TV food chain, an example of natural selection in action.
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