Media musings: 'Survivor' still king
By Judy Frankel
Special to The Capital Times
February 15, 2005
Here's a riddle for you: What do a New York City firefighter, a Muslim, a Mormon, a self-described redneck and a bunch of attorneys have in common? The answer: They're just some of the 20 contestants who will try to outwit, outlast and outplay each other for the $1 million cash prize on the 10th installment of "Survivor," premiering on CBS this Thursday, this time set on Palau in the South Pacific.
As a critic, I am actually surprised that people are still interested in this show. I find it baffling that audiences haven't tired of the whole outwit/outlast/outplay concept. Surprisingly, "Survivor" continues to be a ratings success for CBS since its original premiere as a replacement series (read: filler) in the summer of 2000. To be fair, back then, unscripted television was still a new concept, although game shows were a very hot genre. Anyone remember "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"?
But to keep going with two seasons a year -- that's impressive. Just in competition alone, think of the sheer number of copycat reality shows out there desperately trying to glean some of the reality show audience. And none has ever performed as well as "Survivor."
The "Survivor" franchise has set the gold standard for unscripted television. So what makes "Survivor" so good?
First of all, it is original, or at least used to be. The idea of competitive survival skills had never been part of mainstream television save for producer Mark Burnett's interesting but low-rated "Eco-Challenge" on the USA network and the campy '60s hit "Gilligan's Island." So the audience was ripe for this kind of viewing. Now, competitive anything is the hallmark of reality television.
CBS most recently pushed the envelope with "Wickedly Perfect," essentially a competitive arts and crafts show in a desperate attempt to find the next Martha Stewart and bump up ratings. But the network went a little too far with "The Will," a reality show in which family members competed against each other for a large inheritance. Neither show is faring well: "The Will" was canceled after just one episode, and "Wickedly Perfect" is dancing across the schedule in a desperate attempt to find viewers.
Secondly, hats off to Burnett and company for keeping it fresh. Whether it is over-the-top characters or the male vs. female thing or the unbelievably difficult challenges, each season of "Survivor" has some kind of different twist. This time, 20 contestants, instead of the usual 16, will be starting the race as a single tribe. Press releases tease that three contestants will be eliminated in the first night.
So why do audiences keep tuning in to "Survivor"?
Well, if you are still watching reality television, you must have accepted the premise that the cast, while not actors per se, are really characters designed to play certain accepted dramatic roles: the villain, the hero, the victim, the sexpot, the drama queen and so on. They create the dramatic tension and plot twists and turns (think soap opera) designed to keep the audience interested.
In some cases, the roles really fit the characters. Take original villain and winner of the first "Survivor," Richard Hatch. Hatch set the bar high for all future players and is constantly referred to as the mastermind of the game. Hatch takes his villainy seriously and was recently arraigned on tax evasion in Rhode Island for not paying taxes on his original prize.
In this season, the stereotypes aren't hard to find. Take my personal pick to win it all, Tom Westman, the 41-year-old NYC firefighter. Aside from the obvious reasons to pick the good-looking hero to win, I am choosing Westman to go all the way because I happen to be very familiar with his hometown on Long Island. The jungles of the South Pacific have nothing on his commute to work, angling for a seat on the train or navigating traffic into NYC. All should have fine-tuned his survival skills.
Other good picks, if you are the betting type, include Muslim Ibrehem Rahman, just for the fact that he is really good-looking and buff. And since 9/11, he is probably used to being misjudged -- which is good for this show. Another interesting character is 29-year-old Katie Gallagher, an ad exec from Merced, Calif., who, in her interview, said she went on "Survivor" in the hopes of losing a few pounds. Nothing like being stranded with no food, water or supplies, another twist this season, to help shed those unwanted pounds.
Casting calls for the next "Survivor" installment still pack 'em in, proving the show is still hot. Since I am a longtime viewer of the show, what changes would I like to see in the next "Survivor"?
Mark Burnett, if you are reading this, could we please do without the constant product placement? Burnett, who produces the show, has turned product placement into an art form on so many of his reality shows. The worst offender is the latest installment of "The Apprentice," where whole competitions are geared toward maximizing airtime for the sponsor products, but Target towels on a desert island? -- please!
What I would really like to see next is a celebrity version of "Survivor." No, not the "Survivor: All Stars" that had former castaways from different seasons competing against each other. (Catch "Survivor: All Stars" team Amber and Rob on the next "Amazing Race.") Nor am I talking about the short-lived ABC rip-off of the BBC program "I'm a Celebrity -- Get Me Out of Here," featuring B-listers whining while stuck on a desert island.
What I am proposing is a real celebrity edition of "Survivor." How about Donald Trump, Martha Stewart (both of whom are already working with Burnett on reality shows), host Jeff Probst (he must have learned a thing or two in all those tribal councils), and Marc Cuban and Richard Branson (two billionaires who seem pretty desperate for screen time with their own failed reality shows). Then throw in Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell from "American Idol" (for some mean-spirited commentary) and famed models Tyra Banks ("America's Next Model") and Heidi Klum from "Project Runway" for some eye candy. Add a couple of right-wing politicians for contrast, and you've got a show. Mark Burnett, are you paying attention?
"Survivor: Palau" premieres on CBS at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Published: 6:44 AM 2/15/05