From: Adam Rifkin (adam@KnowNow.com)
Date: Thu Aug 24 2000 - 23:28:01 PDT
My question about Survivor: How the heck were they able to keep the
outcome a secret from tens of millions of interested viewers for several
months and make the winner a person many of the viewers didn't like?
My observation on Survivor: In a way, it's beautiful that the show's
producers did -nothing- to make Richard a sympathetic character.
(www.survivorsucks.com calls him Machiabelly. :) What the show told us
with the final vote is that nonsympathetic is, in the end, better than
just plain pathetic.
The rest of this post is a Survivor scrapbook from my websurfing today...
From the E! Online summary:
> In what eclipsed even CBS' own hyped-up estimates, some 51.7 million
> viewers tuned in Wednesday night as Richard Hatch, 39, the pudgy,
> conniving alliance puppeteer (affectionately known by fellow castaways
> as "Darth Gay-dar") walked away with the $1 million grand prize and a
> brand new sport utility vehicle. The nudity-loving corporate trainer
> from Newport, Rhode Island, won the begrudging envy of his peers
> and--despite crowing from critics that he and his rag-tag bunch of
> no-names were pseudo-celebs--even beat out Hollywood's biggest stars.
> That's right, the two-hour finale nabbed roughly five million more
> viewers than this year's Academy Awards telecast.
> According to final Nielsen numbers, Survivor logged a 28.6 household
> rating and 45 share (a 22.8 rating/54 share in the coveted adults 18-49
> demographic), becoming the highest-rated summer program since the advent
> of Nielsen people meters in 1987, and trailing only January's Super Bowl
> (88.5 million viewers) as the most-watched show of the year.
> For a summer program, and in an era when hundreds of cable channels
> are competing with the broadcast nets for viewer attention, Survivor's
> performance wasn't too shabby. But in the grand scheme of things,
> Survivor landed nowhere near the top of the ratings heap. The top-rated
> show of all time remains the final episode of M*A*S*H, which, on
> February 23, 1983, drew a 60.2 rating and 77 share. Most observers
> agree, however, that the days of network dominance are long gone.
> As for Wednesday night, much of the audience remained tuned in for
> Survivor's live, one-hour reunion at 10 p.m., as the Bryant
> Gumbel-hosted town-hall chat drew some 38.8 million viewers. The show
> logged a 22.5 household rating and 36 share, and an 18.1 rating and 44
> share among adults 18-49, which was enough to outperform every
> previous episode of Survivor.
> (A ratings point represents 1,008,000 households, or 1 percent of the
> nation's estimated 100.8 million TV homes. The share is the percentage
> of turned-on TVs tuned to a particular show.)
Here's the Slate spin:
Slate: "Survivor scored the second-highest rating of the TV season.
CBS's reality TV show about castaways voting each other off an island
ended with a business consultant, Richard Hatch, winning the $1 million
prize. Fifty-one million viewers tuned in to the finale, making it the
most popular TV show this year other than the Super Bowl. TV executives'
spin: We never knew you could have popular shows in the summer." :
> The show has seen its audience grow since the first episode aired,
> from about 15 million to nearly 30 million in recent weeks to
> Wednesday's more than 50 million.
Back to Slate: "TV analysts' spins: 1) The popularity of reality TV may
doom the sitcom." :
> [Producing Survivor is] unbelievably cheap. "Survivor" is a show that
> stars nobody you had ever heard of, none of whom required an entourage
> of "people" on the payroll to whip their bodies, hair, makeup,
> wardrobe and psyche into shape. They are the anti-"Friends." And for
> their starring roles, the contestants were paid practically nothing.
> Each received some money, but even the million-dollar winner made just
> $80,000 per episode, figured over the show's 13 broadcasts--chump
> change for the headliner of a hit series. Consider that Jennifer
> Aniston and her "Friends" will make about $40 million each for doing
> the next two seasons of their sitcom and that Julianna Margulies
> reportedly turned down an offer of $27 million to do another season of "ER."
> Just why has "Survivor" become the country's viewing obsession?
> Exactly because it is the anti-"Friends." "Prime-time television is
> full of actors who are better looking and live in better apartments
> and have cooler jobs and are more articulate and lead more exciting
> lives than any of you do," said [ABC's Michael] Davies. "Prime-time
> television had become fantasy, which is what the movie business is,"
> Davies added, calling this the natural result of the movie studios'
> taking over the business of TV series production. Reality
> programming, on the other hand "always has at its core, 'That could be
> me,' " Davies explained. And that's what America wants.
> At 40 million viewers, the "Survivor" finale would be no challenge
> for, say, the last Super Bowl broadcast's 88 million couch fans, or
> the series finale of NBC's "Seinfeld," which made history with its 76
> million in May 1998. On the other hand, 40 million is more than
> "Friends" averaged last season--and "Survivor" costs nowhere near the
> millions per episode for actors alone that "Friends" will this coming
> It is, however, a show on which CBS is able to charge about $600,000 for
> a 30-second ad, according to the Web site Inside.com--slightly higher
> than the average for a "Friends" spot last season and more than twice
> what CBS averaged last season for an a
Back to Slate: "2) Nonsense. Survivor was popular for its novelty,
nothing more." :
> "The only way they can keep it going is to make Survivor I look like a
> Girl Scout Summer Camp. They are going to have to add shock and sex in
> equal and ever-increasing measures," said Richard Perkins, Professor
> of Media at the University of Toronto.
> Show producers know that "Survivor" will be a hard act to follow and
> are scrambling for new trials for contestants. Britain's New Scientist
> reports that a soon-to-come series will feature astronaut training,
> with a 10-day mission in the Mir space station as the winner's prize.
> Interestingly, that tidbit eerily replicates PopCorn culture's spoof
> site "Survivor IV - Mir To Mars" :
> But even that won't provide enough rocket fuel to keep reality shows
> flying high, says Perkins, who predicts the success of "Voyeur TV"
> will hinge on how big a slice of authenticity they can serve up to
> their viewers without losing advertisers.
> "There was a feeling with 'Survivor' that anything could happen. It
> didn't. No one boffed in the bushes, no one really suffered, and no
> one died," he said. "For these shows to continue, the producers are
> going to have to show real sex, blood, and horror. And I'd wager they
> "The Web, on the other hand, has no constraints as far as personal
> pages go. It's the original 'Me' media, and there are a lot of
> exhibitionists out there who aren't going to make it onto VTV," he
> continued. "So, people will increasingly hook up their webcams and
> blast every uncensored, raw minute of their life into the ether for
> all to see. TV can't compete."
> Valerie Murphy-Dunnes, a Manhattan psychologist, disagrees with
> Perkins. She says that success of "Survivor" was based on its feeding
> off fears the Web has fostered.
> "We feel like we have no privacy anymore -- that we are being watched
> at work, at home, in bed -- everywhere," she said. "This show, which
> so beautifully duplicates the kill-or-be-killed corporate culture, is
> a mirror to our psyches. And as long as these fears remain, people
> will watch. They'd rather watch than be watched."
> Perkins' predictions won't stop the tsunami of new reality shows. ABC
> will have "Jailbreak," originally created for the BBC, where
> contestants plot to break out of the joint while undergoing physical
> and psychological hardships. Then there's "The Mole," a sort of
> cross-country scavenger hunt/"I Spy" game where contestants have to
> meet challenges and find the impostor who has been planted in their
> midst. NBC will counter with "Chains of Love," a blind-date-gone-bizarre
> show where contests are handcuffed to several potential mates, with the
> losers getting uncuffed as the show progresses.
> "Will any of these shows garner the success that Survivor did? No, of
> course not," says Sharon Lewlen, a Pagan Priestess and film student at
> the School Of Visual Arts. "'Survivor' was about our need for rites of
> passage. Our need to face nature and our own bodies and put them to
> the test."
> Lewlen believes that society misses having a tribal culture, living
> fully exposed in front of a small group of people who really know each
> other, and who show love in spite of the fact that they "throw hissy
> fits, have fat butts, and are sometimes evil. You don't get that on
> the Internet, where you can present yourself as whoever you want to be."
> The downside is that "Survivor" also allowed Americans to sit in front
> of their TVs and pontificate about the need to keep the water supply
> pure, says Lewlen, who also believes that society as a whole will grow
> increasingly dissatisfied with substitutions for real experiences.
> "Hopefully, we'll get off our fat butts and go out into the woods
> before we start seeing 'Friday Night Executions on ESPN,' or 'No
> Survivors -- The Snuff Film.' We need to get out and live before no
> one gets out alive."
Back to Slate: "Viewers' spins: 1) The show proves that Machiavellian
tactics always work." :
> The Machiavellian [Richard] Hatch seen by millions on TV is not the
> man he knows. "That's a side of Rich I've never seen before. In real
> life Rich is a warm, fun guy to be around. He's funny."
> Perhaps even more amazing is that in an era when the most intimate
> Oval Office goings-on become public knowledge, the name of the last
> survivor remained a well-kept secret, months after the program was
> taped. The castaways had a strong incentive not to break the code of
> silence: the threat of a $4 million lawsuit and the loss of prize
> money for revealing the sole survivor.
> "We get off on watching people under pressure. And if possible people
> close to perishing or perishing. That after all was the basic
> structure of gladiator combats," Northwestern University Sociology
> professor Bernard Beck told NBC News.
Back to Slate: "2) Richard Hatch's backstabbing would never wowould
never work in the business world." :
> The hype surrounding the show has generally glossed over the deeper
> reasons for its success, but the fact that Richard Hatch survived to
> win the million dollars at the end of last night's finale speaks
> directly to why the series has touched a chord. He coldbloodedly
> strategized from the start. It's no accident that he was always
> identified as a corporate trainer, almost the embodiment of cutthroat
> As two finalists faced a jury of those they had cast off, one said she
> was not so much for Richard as against Kelly Wiglesworth, the
> runner-up and a former ally who had turned against her. Richard was a
> snake, she said, but Kelly was a rat. Kelly herself had asked in an
> aside to the camera in the final weeks, "How do you stay true to
> yourself and maintain integrity and still play this game?" She
> answered her own question: "You can't."
> The standard line about "Survivor" has been: it is a reality game show
> featuring ordinary people, plus one scheming villain to hiss at. But
> that is entirely backward. "Survivor" is as remote from reality as its
> setting, Pulau Tiga (likely translation: Island of the Product
> Placements) and as meticulously structured as a novel by Agatha
> Christie (whose "Ten Little Indians" plot it brilliantly mimics). And
> though its characters may be genuine to their family and friends, to
> the average viewer they are as real as Brad Pitt.
> That visceral response to Richard's conniving wouldn't have
> materialized if the show didn't work as pure entertainment. Even the
> best orchestrated hype (which CBS had) isn't enough to account for the
> endless chattering among viewers. "Survivor" drew a gigantic audience
> with a combination of sports challenges and the suspense of who gets
> kicked off the island: Agatha Christie goes to the Olympics. (The
> island itself was as realistic and as hokey as a haunted house.)
> And each episode was edited into a swift hour. "Survivor" never spent
> more than a few seconds watching someone eat rice. "Elapsed time: 4
> hours 11 minutes" flashed on the screen after the minutes spent in last
> night's contest about who could stand the longest with a hand on a
> totem pole. Take away ruthless editing, and you end up watching people
> feed the chickens, as they have on CBS's tiresome "Big Brother."
> The truest voyeurism, after all, is looking into someone else's
> thoughts, and that is what truly drove "Survivor." The most compelling
> moments were those in which the contestants spoke directly to the
> camera, confidentially to us, letting us into the secrets of their
> sometimes backbiting strategies.
> In one episode Colleen sits in a tree, looks sweetly into the camera
> and says she'll vote Richard off the island because he's too
> bossy. (What an innocent.) In a later episode Richard, the supposed
> villain, looks into the camera and says coolly, ominously of Gretchen,
> "She has to go because she is bright and is strong, and she is a
> threat." Gretchen is gone that night. The message about who wins in
> life is unmistakable. Of course the editors knew the winner in
> advance: they clearly edited to focus on Rich and make him the
> audience-drawing villain.
> The show's producers selected these contestants shrewdly, to cover the
> social spectrum, from Sean, a neurologist, to Susan, a truck driver so
> tough her husband boasted in an interview, "She's a man in a woman's
> body." It was a dazzling stroke to bring the contestants videos from
> home a few weeks ago. Viewers saw Gervase's daughter toddling toward
> the camera and watched Jenna, the mother of twin girls, cry when she
> heard her video had not arrived. Those humanizing moments were the
> equivalent of up-close-and-personal profiles of sports stars.
> We do not actually know these people any better than we know the
> latest celebrity interviewed on "Entertainment Tonight," of
> course. The irony is that the success of "Survivor" has made these
> real people less real to us, as they have taken on the flattened
> images of celebrities. (And their post-"Survivor" show-business plans
> are just starting.) Richard had already achieved a measure of
> fame. Say "the naked fat guy," and everyone knows who you mean. And
> admit it: you secretly like him. That may be the biggest, most
> revealing "Survivor" secret of all.
Back to Slate: "Contestants' spin: Let's enjoy our 15 minutes." :
> Though they have no talents to speak of, they know how
> to scheme, whine, eat larva...
> Already, eight of the 16 Survivors have official "representation".
> Agent Sherri Spillane of Los Angeles is handling Jenna, Gervase, Greg,
> Joel, Susan, Richard, B.B. and Sonja (if you are famous enough, you
> don't need need a last name). She expects to sign two more cast
> members today. She's talking ads, book projects, TV and movie roles,
> personal appearances, the works.
> "The phone is just ringing off the hook. I'm getting 95 to 100 calls
> a day. I got one at 2am. It's just crazy."
> Yes, you'd want your agent to say that, too. But this is from a woman
> who handled Tammy Faye Bakker, Kato Kaelin, Divine Brown, John Wayne
> Bobbitt, the Buttafuocos and Tonya Harding, among others. When it
> comes to throwaway celebrity, Spillane owns the landfill.
> Goofy Sean, the nipple-ringed neurologist, has three agents --
> one for his novel, one for acting jobs, one for booking speeches. At
> the moment, he's pushing ginkgo biloba extract on a Web site.
Slate's "Culturebox" on Survivor's lessons for Bush and Gore:
> The tribal-council meeting resembled nothing so much as one of those
> ersatz debates in which reporters pose questions to the candidates,
> although in this case half the "reporters" grandstanded instead, and one
> of them (Sue) delivered herself of a full-throated aria suffused with
> not-so-crypto-lesbian rage.
> And hey, here was a familiar choice! On the one hand, the callow,
> manipulative, backslapping goodfellow (Rich "the snake," as Sue put
> it). On the other, the stolid, silent, introverted type (Kelly "the
> rat"). Kelly seemed the better person and was clearly the more solid
> competitor. It was her race to lose, and she did so with thorougthough
> it was widely acknowledged that she endured as a result of her
> participation in the voting bloc. "I wish I had been more moral."
> Questioner Colleen stared in disbelief.
> Rich didn't have to work hard to win, but he did pander wisely. Asked
> to pick two former contestants who he thought should have been
> finalists instead of him and Kelly, he both shored up his base and
> reached out to the undecided voter. His base was Rudy, the ex-Navy
> SEAL who was never going to vote for a woman anyway. The swing voter
> was Greg ("Ivy League graduate"), upon whom Rich lavished fulsome praise.
> Greg voted for him in the end, of course. Indeed, the electorate split
> along predictable race and gender lines. Gervase, the one black man,
> and a majority of women voted for Kelly. White men and one alienated
> woman voted for Rich. Kelly was a gracious loser, as one might have
> expected her to be. Rich smirked happily. We'll be seeing that smile a
> lot for the next few years. Let's hope it doesn't portend what we
> think it does.
Slate's "Moneybox" on why the business consultant won:
> Our long prime-time nightmare is over, and the consultant won. I will
> admit that the mood was grim at Moneybox headquarters in New Orleans
> when the votes were tallied and the smug tactics of Richard, the
> "corporate trainer and consultant," were validated by Survivor's $1
> million jackpot. Bryant Gumbel, in the absurd post-show "town hall,"
> "town hall," helpfully reminded Richard of the various polls that
> showed him to be America's least favorite contestant, and indeed a
> post-show snap poll had something like two-thirds of respondents
> complaining that the wrong person won. "Oh my God, no," was the
> assessment of one fan quoted in (the lead story in) this morning's New
> Orleans Times-Picayune. "I can't even express to you what I'm feeling
> right now. I'm about to cry."
> Well, the mood at Moneybox wasn't that bad. But still. I'll leave it to
> others to ponder the mortifying spectacle of the over-the-top j'accuse
> leveled by truck-driver Susan at her erstwhile pal Kelly. Or the awkward
> performance of Gumbel in the hourlong festival of squeamishness he
> presided over, in which most of the ex-contestants comported
> themselves with a weary lack of enthusiasm that smacked of contractual
> obligation. What are we to make of the Survivor consultant's triumph?
> It was Richard who captured the attention of this column early on, as I
> was startled to to hear the dull and self-serving theoretics of
> management finding a voice on the desert island that was the contest's
> setting. Richard was on hand not to exhibit the self-made
> entrepreneurialism that Americans supposedly worship these
> days. Instead, he embodied the more quotidian mixture of false charm,
> inflated claims of worth to the group, and flat-out lying that anyone
> who's worked in middle management has seen in certain colleagues whose
> primary skill--or whose primary "value added," if you prefer--is
> self-preservation. I was less startled, but still fascinated, to
> observe how effective this turned out to be as the contest
> continued. Last night the consultant's final presentation was built
> around the interesting notion that, while he had indeed been a
> two-faced conniver, well, at least he was honest about it.
> Upon reflection, I'm sort of glad that the show's villain won, because
> I'm curious what will become of him. While the guy has endured
> astounding abuse in the court of public opinion, I suspect his
> ultimate victory is going to entail more than the million bucks. It's
> not hard to imagine some business publisher or other signing him up to
> write a "Survivor Guide" or two, and he can probably burnish his brand
> by hitting the corporate lecture circuit. Yeah, Americans loved to
> hate him, but now he's a winner, and we have a remarkable facility for
> after-the-fact theories to justify pretty much any sort of success--a
> process Gumbel got under way by congratulating Richard in tones that
> suggested he had won an Olympic gold medal.
> Curiously unremarked upon last night, given the degree to which we all
> supposedly worship the act of actual, unnuanced, meritocratic winning,
> was that Richard's final rival was a woman who made it to the end solely
> by virtue of a string of five straight victories in the contest's
> silly "challenges." So, perhaps what the Survivor consultant has
> ultimately taught us is that in life's little contests, it's not
> whether you win or lose, but how well you play the office
> politics. Now, that's entertainment!
From Salon's Bill Wyman:
> Among other things, "Survivor" was a tabula rasa. You could see
> anything in it. To some the island intrigues called up memories of
> high school. The more mature saw office politics. The Manichaean
> pointed to the Darwinian overtones. The optimistic saw it as a chance
> for people to work together, the pessimistic as a true test of
> Machiavellian politics.
> In its own way, the show undercut at least part of each of these
> expectations as time went on. Most notably, for some reason the
> castaways found few reasons to work together or, with one exception, to
> plot together, either to support or to save themselves.
> The fittest weren't really rewarded. The residents barely hunted or
> fished. The group's attempts to build a shelter were pathetic and
> ultimately abandoned. The last few days on the island saw the
> remaining survivors cold and hungry as they ate plain rice day after
> day and sat without adequate shelter during torrents of rain.
> As we noted early on, our pet metaphor for "Survivor" was that of the
> chess game. The winner will be someone who was both a strategist from
> the beginning and a student of the show's endgame.
> After a few weeks of watching the clueless Pagongs allow themselves to
> be voted off one by one, you have to give Darwin some credit: The
> members of the Pagong tribe are gone -- extinct -- because they lacked
> the wherewithal to combat something that was well within their power
> to halt. It is instructive that after a few prunings of the old and
> the infirm in the beginning, the older and smarter survivors have
> systematically laid waste to their youthful fellow castaways.
[Recall that Wyman was the one who predicted that Richard didn't have a
chance at winning.]
Finally, from Salon's Joyce Millman:
> To say that "Survivor" was a "reality show" is like saying "Twin
> Peaks" was a show about pie. "Survivor" was as over-the-top dramatic
> and bitchy as a nighttime soap. It was as nastily funny as an episode
> of "Seinfeld." It was a suspenseful and splendidly plotted game show,
> filled with the sort of strategy and subterfuge you don't see on, you
> know, "Wheel of Fortune." It was a hokey fiesta of bad behavior,
> hubris and canned pathos, perfect for watching in large groups and for
> hurling snarky remarks at the screen -- it was the equivalent of the
> Academy Awards every week! "Survivor" was plain old good television...
> Yes, "Survivor" wrote a new rule into the TV programmers' handbook:
> It's hard to go wrong with back stabbing, bug eating and a haughty
> naked guy.
> "Survivor" was the perfect show for our robust economic
> times. "Survivor" was all about workaholism. The castaways' 24/7
> island ordeal was a neat metaphor for high-tech corporate culture,
> where work is supposed to be an extension of play and nobody needs
> vacations, weekends off or personal lives because, hey, this "group"
> creative effort is so much fun! Give us your complete devotion and
> maybe you'll make an easy million on your stock options! Or, maybe not!
> The "Greatest Generation" had World War II. We have "Survivor." With
> the exception of Rudy (the ex-Navy Seal), B.B. and Sonja, none of the
> castaways was old enough to remember World War II or economic
> depression. For those castaways (and viewers of baby boomer age and
> younger), "Survivor" might have reflected the desire to test one's
> mettle, to face some kind of defining crucible, as "Greatest
> Generation" booster Tom Brokaw would say. Actually, he'd say
> "crucibew," but I digress. Have endurance, guts and all the right
> stuff been bred out of us by the culture of plenty? Are we just a
> bunch of latte-sipping sissies?
> Well, did you watch the deceptively waifish Colleen balancing on a
> thin beam of wood over the ocean for three hours on legs and feet that
> were covered with painful, itchy, festering sores? There's your answer.
> On "Survivor," we had the Target care package (towels, pillows,
> well-stocked spice rack) dropped via a parachute festooned with the
> chain store's big red bull's-eye logo. We had host Jeff Probst giving
> a reward challenge winner the chance to call home on "the Ericsson
> World Phone"; another reward challenge winner got an ice-cold Bud
> Light and an off-island trip to a bar with Probst to sip still more
> Bud Light. "Survivor" cleverly took these items, which are mere
> wallpaper in our overstuffed lives, out of context and recast them as
> glittering prizes that could transform the castaways' deprived
> existence. The entire show was, in fact, an ad for the triumph of
> capitalism. Sure, the castaways were having their mettle tested and
> "getting away from civilization," but they didn't seem too happy about
> it as they glumly spooned up their portions of plain white rice,
> dreaming aloud of pizza and burritos and chocolate. And shampoo and
> conditioner. And featherbeds and masseuses. And on and on. "Survivor"
> was all about the pervasiveness of stuff even in the absence of it.
Looks to me like it would be healthier to watch violent porn than "Survivor". -- Kragen Sitaker
Evil will always triumph over good because good is dumb. -- Spaceballs
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