The stars in the Survivor sky
The reality show that changed television brings back previous winners and other favourites for the ultimate Machiavellian rumble, writes Alex Strachan.
The Ottawa Citizen
January 31, 2004
Considering the masssive publicity surrounding the airing of Survivor: All Stars tomorrow night, it's easy to forget how it all began.
In early October 1999, CBS announced a casting call for an intriguing new adventure reality series. Survivor would shipwreck 16 men and women on the island of Pulau Tiga, a far-flung, little-known patch of coral beach and sand-flea-infested jungle 40 kilometres off the coast of Borneo in the South China Sea.
Cameras would film the castaways night and day as they built shelter, foraged for food and, every three days, voted one of their own out of the group, until just one remained.
Survivor's producer, Mark Burnett, was a former British Parachute Regiment commando and section leader whose sole previous television experience was producing the Eco-Challenge series of expedition races, the second of which was held in Pemberton, B.C.
CBS had few expectations for Survivor, which was ready for airing the following summer. The television ratings at the time were dominated by Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which incredibly had nailed down the top three positions in that year's Nielsen charts (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays), followed by faithful standbys ER, Friends and Frasier.
Summer was a time for reruns. Conventional wisdom at the time held that no one watched television during the summer, and what little audience there was for summer reruns was in freefall.
CBS thought it might temporarily stem the bleeding with an Americanized version of a European reality program called Big Brother, but other than that the network held out little hope that anyone would watch TV that summer who wasn't watching already.
The year 2000 was a bad one for reality TV: The Fox network's Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? had just ended in scandal, and viewers were growing visibly tired of six nights a week of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Survivor was quietly eased onto the air on May 31, 2000, with little fanfare and even less hope that it would amount to anything more than a viable alternative to watching a rerun of Diagnosis Murder, the show it replaced on CBS's schedule.
When lightning strikes, it has a way of coming out of nowhere and lighting up everything it touches in a blinding instant.
Survivor's debut was the most-watched program of the evening -- curiosity seekers seemed drawn by Survivor's premise of Robinson Crusoe meets Gilligan's Island, and its promise of Dallas-like infighting, played out against a tropical backdrop -- and word spread from there.
In little less then three weeks, Survivor's weekly ritual of tiki-toting castaways exchanging barbs around a tribal council fire had captured the popular imagination. Expressions like "fire is life" and "the tribe has spoken" had become part of the lexicon, and anyone who watched television, it seemed at the time, was on a first-name basis with Rich, Rudy, Sue and Kelly. An astounding 57 million viewers tuned into Survivor's finale that September -- numbers not seen since Seinfeld's farewell two years earlier -- and Richard Hatch's face was splashed across the front page of newspapers from USA Today to the National Post.
By the time Survivor II: The Australian Outback premiered following the Super Bowl on Jan. 28, 2001, Survivor was inextricably woven into the popular culture.
The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were thought at the time to be a nail in the coffin of reality television in general and Survivor in particular -- who could be interested in a contrived television program about faux survival when the world had just borne witness to the real thing, or so the thinking went -- but Survivor endured: The gender wars of Survivor: Amazon and the larger-than-life personality clashes of last year's Survivor: Pearl Islands breathed new life into a series many believed had run its course.
That easy familiarity between viewers and characters is just one of the reasons there is such widespread interest in Survivor: All-Stars, at 10 p.m. tomorrow on CBS and Global, after the Super Bowl. Faithful viewers of Survivor have come to accept Tina, Rupert, Jenna and Jerri as they would one of their own neighbours.
The deeper reason why Survivor appeals to so many different people on so many levels -- Survivor is one of those rare television programs that is seen by many people who don't ordinarily watch television -- has to do with what Burnett insists is hard-wired into human nature: survival instinct, coupled with the need to get along in a group. Years of producing Eco-Challenge taught Burnett that success depends on team dynamics and interpersonal relationships more than any other factor, and he designed Survivor as a way to allow men and women to interact with nature and discover who they really were -- "two parts adventure contest and eight parts surviving the peer group," as Burnett described it at the time.
The only difference between stranding 16 city dwellers on a desert island with TV cameras, and wealthy individuals willing to pay six-figure sums to scale Mt. Everest with a guide, is the size of the safety net, Burnett said at the time.
Burnett sought to blur the barrier between television and genuine survival by blurring the distinction between what is real in Survivor -- actual people, drawn from all walks of life, immersed in an actual, real-world adventure -- from what is not real -- the silly challenges, the goofy tiki torches, the tacky immunity idol, the plastic, faux-Mayan columns, the constantly prying the invasive television cameras.
In the end, Burnett said at the time, Survivor is less about an Outward Bound exercise gone horribly wrong than it is a study in Machiavellian politics at their most primal. The goal is not so much to survive, but to avoid being voted out of the group. The ultimate winner in Survivor is whoever can best manipulate the complicated social group dynamics under pressure.