Survivor gets serious
Mark Burnett wants to shake things up
The Ottawa Citizen
February 16, 2005
That's a fair rule of thumb for life in general, but after nine series of Survivor and a cumulative audience of more than 250 million viewers, Mark Burnett realized contenders for his show were becoming a little too presumptuous for his liking.
So when Survivor: Palau debuts, two castaways will be sent packing right off the bat. Another will be gone by the time the first hour is over.
Burnett's message to the competitors is plain: This is my show, not yours. I alone decide which way the wind blows. And it doesn't matter how closely you studied the other Survivors before signing on to do this one.
Burnett believed complacency is anathema to good television.
Survivor: Vanuatu's audience dipped only slightly from last spring's All-Stars edition, but Burnett was mindful of complaints the show had become predictable. The secret to producing a better-than-average Survivor is fourfold, Burnett believes:
- Find a proper location;
- Create a unique look for the tribal council set;
- Prepare an incredible opening; and,
- Get the right cast.
Casting is of critical importance. The idea is not to find another Rupert Boneham or Richard Hatch, Burnett insists, but to find diverse characters who represent a cross-section of the audience watching the program.
Only time will tell if viewers embrace the cast of Survivor: Palau the way they did some of the outlandish characters in the original Survivor and Survivor: Pearl Islands, but Burnett believes he's on the right track.
Once again, the program will feature personalities chosen for their seeming incompatibility, as well as how good they look on TV.
There are the usual stereotypes -- the gay hairdresser, the strapping firefighter, the tough girl with the tattoos who never fit in with the in-crowd, the woman who won't stop singing; the older man who thinks he's a decathlete, etc. -- but the best Survivors are those which take the players, and the audience, by surprise, and bend stereotypes along the way.
This time, Burnett decided to make the early challenges physically demanding. If a team chooses to vote out its strongest members early-- as happened in Vanuatu, allowing doughy Ohio highway worker and eventual Survivor winner Chris Daugherty to remain in the game after falling off a balance beam in his first team challenge -- it virtually guarantees they will lose more team challenges than they win.
The move to more physical challenges is part of Burnett's strategy to keep competitors, and the audience, off-balance.
This time, the castaways are dropped on a beach and given nothing -- no fire, no food, no shelter. They are not even told if they will be divided into separate tribes. Host Jeff Probst simply says, "Have a good time," and leaves.
The result, Burnett intimated in an interview, is chaos, as the castaways begin to question their pre-game assumptions. "Survivor is about removing the veneer of people showing who they think they are," he said.
The game itself hasn't changed, Burnett insists. It's the opening that's different.
People are expecting a conventional way of doing things, and when it doesn't play out that way, it throws them off balance. It's like going to a restaurant and no one tells you that there are no waiters. How long do you sit there complaining, as opposed to being smart about it and noticing that there's a buffet? It's the same philosophy. You create a tense situation by removing what they expect."
Another secret to Survivor success: Location, location, location.
An example of just how firmly ingrained Survivor's locations are in people's minds was brought home to Burnett in a knowledge survey conducted by National Geographic at the time Survivor: Marquesas was being played on TV.
College students across the U.S. were asked to find three locations on a map -- Iraq, Afghanistan and the Marquesas. Fewer than 25 per cent could find Iraq or Afghanistan, while more than half could point out the Marquesas.
The new edition is set on the island nation of Palau, in the Pacific Ocean some 500 kilometres southeast of the Philippines, north of New Guinea and just off the Equator. It's an archipelago of high, volcanic peaks and coral atolls, replete with dense jungles, turquoise lagoons and barrier reefs. The remains and wreckage of numerous warships sunk during the Second World War have lured countless species of fish and underwater sea life, and the region is one of the world's foremost deep sea diving destinations.
"It's a big theme," Probst said. "You can't go to Palau and not see remnants of World War II. They are everywhere, 400-foot ships 30 feet down."
Probst says the war setting changed the castaways' outlook on life.
"One thing Survivor does is it alters your perspective. When you're away for 40 days, it may not seem like much when you're watching at home. But it's a long time with no interaction, no word, no e-mail, no letter, no phone call. You forget how much you love your family, how important your friends are. This backdrop gave them more perspective, made them realize (Survivor) is just a game, that there are more important things in life."
For his part, Burnett has not ruled out Western Canada as a potential location for Survivor, despite CBS chair Leslie Moonves' recent assertion that such an idea is preposterous.
Two new Survivors have been confirmed for the 2005-06 TV season, but their locations have yet to be revealed. Burnett confirmed he has scouted locations in B.C., but said he is far from making a decision. He staged an Eco-Challenge expedition race near Pemberton in 1996, and was struck by the glacial backdrop and rugged terrain.
"If I was going to do a cold-weather version, I would use the Pemberton Ice Cap around Whistler," Burnett said. "The Yukon is a possibility, too."
Burnett is aware of Moonves' antipathy -- a cold-weather Survivor isn't exactly bikini-friendly -- but once again he warns against making fast assumptions.
"Leslie's mind can be changed," he said. "He's open-minded."
The New Survivors
There are 20 castaways in this 10th edition. (The Vanuatu and All-Stars editions featured 18 contenders, the other editions began with 16 players.) The oldest castaway this time is 57, and the youngest is 21.
Angie Jakusz, 24, New Orleans
Where would Survivor be without at least one bartender? This one claims to be an artist, which might explain the tattoos. She lists heckling among her hobbies.
Ashlee Ashby, 22, Easley, S.C.,
A practising Mormon with a phonetically flawless name. How much do you want to bet her name is misspelled on at least one vote card?
Bobby Jon Drinkard, 27, Santa Monica, CA.,
With a name like that, he was born to be a bartender.
He was once voted Alabama's most eligible bachelor by Cosmopolitan magazine.
Coby Archa, 32, Athens, TX.,
Was sentenced to seven months in jail and five years probation for larceny when he was 17. Sounds like a natural for Survivor.
Gregg Carey, 28, Chicago,
With a CV like that, shouldn't he have tried out for The Apprentice instead? He competes in adventure races and once scaled Mt. Fuji -- which is another way of saying he'll be singled out as a threat early and likely sent home.
Katie Gallagher, 29, Merced, CA.,
Should do well in any challenge involving sponsors' products. On the other hand, she claims to be sarcastic and opinionated. Sounds like a winning strategy to me.
Carolyn Grodel, 46, Solon, OH.,
She's married with three kids, so she's liable to stick out in this preening flock of single, self-absorbed narcissists.
Ian Rosenberger, 23, Key Largo, FL.,
Dolphin training sounds like an ideal background for an ocean-based Survivor. He also once competed in a 48-hour dance marathon, which means he could be tough to beat in endurance challenges.
Ibrehem Rahman, 27, Birmingham, AL., waiter
Has a degree in mechanical engineering and is returning to grad school to land a business degree, which suggests he won't be counting on tips for long. The engineering background may come in handy when building shelter, and waiting tables should come in handy when forging alliances and pretending to enjoy other people's company.
James Miller, 33, Mobile, AL.,
Drifted from job to job prior to landing a fulltime gig as a steelworker, served two years in the U.S. Navy, studied computers at one college and biology at another. Presumably he'll be strong in physical challenges, and his flexibility in switching jobs should help him move from task to task with ease. Then again, maybe he has the attention span of a gnat.
Janu Tornell, 39, Las Vegas,
She's used to being in front of the camera, having to perform two shows a night. She also scuba dives and is a competitive swimmer -- so water challenges should prove a breeze.
Jeff Wilson, 21, Ventura, CA.,
Played football in high school, studied at the National Academy of Sports Medicine, was briefly employed as a soccer referee, welder and petroleum distributor, and works part-time as "a brand representative for a major clothing company." A cipher, in other words. Still, the refereeing skills could come in handy.
Jennifer Lyon, 32, Encino, CA.,
Who better to deal with a brood of crybabies?
Jolanda Jones, 39, Houston,
She won three NCAA heptathlons and the 1989 U.S. Track and Field Heptathlon Championship, qualified for the 1996 U.S. Olympic trials and last year was inducted into the Texas Black Hall of Fame.
Her background is all about overcoming adversity. Two of her uncles committed suicide, an aunt was murdered, various members of her family are in jail and when she was a child, her father killed himself while she was in the room. She raised her four younger siblings on her own while their mother worked.
Jonathan Libby, 23, Dallas,
sales and marketing
He says he's blunt, straightforward and intense -- which means he'll need all the sales skills he can muster not to rub the others the wrong way.
Kimberly Mullen, 25, Huber Heights, OH.,
Her Middle Eastern and political science studies might come in handy when brokering peace deals at tribal council. She's also a part-time model and was once voted Miss Ohio USA.
Stephenie LaGrossa, 25, Philadelphia,
bartender, pharmaceutical sales rep
Similar occupations in a way, I suppose. She was also a competitive swimmer in high school, which means the fix is in where water challenges are concerned.
Tom Westman, 41, Sayville, NY.,
He's married, with three children -- a solid citizen and family man, in other words. He also scuba dives, which should make him a natural in water challenges. Provided he isn't singled out early as a threat to win, he could go far in a game in which popularity counts as much as anything.
Wanda Shirk, 55, Ulysses, PA.,
She once cared for 25 children in a foster home, which means she should get along with the nanny just fine. Together, they ought to be able to keep the spoiled children in line.
Willard Smith, 57, Bellevue, WA.,
He's 57, which in Survivor terms means he's ready for dentures and a walker. He'll stick out among all the models, high-performance athletes, barkeeps, sales reps and preening narcissists. Count on him to be tough in an argument, however.
Ran with fact box "The new survivors", which has been appended to the story.