Men vs. women on CBS' 'Survivor'
By Gary Levin, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — Amid a glut of reality programs, Survivor: The Amazon has found a new wrinkle to keep viewers: a battle of the sexes pitting an all-male tribe against women.
TV's top unscripted series, returning for a sixth season with a 90-minute premiere Feb. 13 on CBS (8 p.m. ET/PT), is waging its own kind of battle. Though it is still hugely popular and has more than 20 million viewers each week, Survivor's age, lost novelty and new competition threaten to undermine fan interest.
CBS lost a court bid on Monday to stop ABC from airing I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!, which CBS said is too similar to Survivor. ABC will air its series, which will strand stars in Australia, live for 15 consecutive nights next month.
Coupled with talent searches and dating shows that seem to be growing like weeds — much to the chagrin of sitcom and drama producers — a saturation point looms.
"With all the stuff on the air this spring and probably next fall, we probably will have overdone it," CBS Television president Leslie Moonves told TV critics Monday in Los Angeles.
"Everybody's looking for that quick fix, and a lot of times these shows do give you that. Hopefully the cream will rise to the top, as it did with Survivor."
Survivor producer Mark Burnett says he isn't worried, although for the first time the usually secretive CBS screened 12 minutes of the premiere episode for critics a month before the premiere.
"We're in another world compared to these other shows," he says. "We have this core audience, and as long as we remain true to our dramatic arcs, we'll be fine."
So why the change? "It's like any whodunit: If it's too predictable, it's not fair to the audience."
The Amazon tribe split, Tambaqui (men) and Jaburu (women), forced producers to design a broader mix of challenges to avoid men getting an unfair advantage by using physical strength. Burnett said a similar adjustment occurred in the last Survivor, in Thailand, when older members were concentrated in one tribe.
The same-sex grouping presented its own challenges: At least initially, women couldn't flaunt "string bikinis to show off" and gain advantage, host Jeff Probst says. And male egos threatened their tribe even as the women bonded.
"Keeping them separated, the sexual tension kept building," Probst says. "When they met for challenges, it was like a mixer."
The tribes include a deaf woman — Christy Smith, an adventure guide from Colorado — and the series' first Asian man, Daniel Lue, an accountant in Houston. And the usual threatening elements await, including schools of piranha and crocodiles.