TV Show "Survivor" Teaches Scheming and Betrayal
August 24, 2000
The hottest show of the summer is the new CBS reality series "Survivor." What began as a 13-week attempt by CBS to generate higher ratings during the summer reruns surprised almost everyone by becoming not only the most watched summer series ever but also a cultural phenomenon. Fans obsessed over each episode on several "Survivor"-themed Web sites. "Survivor" party plans rival those for Super Bowl soirees. "The tribe has spoken" has become the latest cultural catchphrase. The real message of "Survivor," though, is that the way to get ahead is to lie to your acquaintances, betray your friends, scheme with your enemies, and stab your competitors in the back. The final episode of "Survivor" mercifully occurred last night. The winner, or last survivor, won $1 million. It may be a small reward for persevering through hunger, grueling physical tests, and psychological tricks for 39 days on the remote island of Pulau Tiga, off the coast of Borneo, not to mention selling his soul and sacrificing his principles for what will not even be enough to retire on.
"Survivor" worked like this: Sixteen contestants, marooned last March, were divided into two ''tribes'' and forced to build shelter, find food and create their own cooperative society. Every third day, one castaway was voted off by teammates. In the seventh episode, those remaining were combined into a single team, with the vote-out process continuing. But before each vote, the person who wins an ''immunity challenge'' -- some athletic competition or test of wits -- is exempted from expulsion.
According to some, the show's genius is its seeming replication of the underbelly of corporate America. The innocents who joined "Survivor"as a lark, relishing the adventure, have been summarily dispatched by the schemers, conniving to shape the game's outcome by joining forces. But last night's two-hour finale came down to a popularity contest. After an immunity challenge, in which they were asked questions about their rivals that revealed how much they learned, the first of the four finalists was voted off. A second immunity challenge, a physical endurance test that included walking on hot coals, was followed by a second ejection.
The two remaining survivors then faced a jury of the seven competitors most recently eliminated. They made opening statements in which they lobbied for the top prize and then answered questions from each juror. The seven then voted on who got the $1 million. The runner-up received $100,000, and the others got $2,500 or more, depending on how long they stayed.
In many ways last night's finale was similar to a presidential campaign. For example:
- The two remaining contestants had previously eliminated their competition by forming secret alliances and stabbing their friends in the back. Then, in the final vote, they tried to win the votes of the people they had recently betrayed.
- The show was incredibly boring, as the last two survivors pleaded for votes and their supporters whined about how the other candidate lied and cheated.
- The "voters" cast ballots against the contestant they hated the most, rather than for some one they liked.
Richard Hatch, the scheming winner in this potboiler, is a 39-year-old corporate trainer from Newport, Rhode Island. He claims his immoral persona is a press creation. "When I landed on the island, I was thinking, 'I'm in the midst of a game; I need to play this game well,'" Hatch said. Hatch became the cunning engineer of an alliance that methodically picked off competitors. Many viewers thought he would be shunned by the seven ousted contestants who chose the final winner. But Hatch thinks they "respected that I came in with a mission." With his riches, Hatch plans to start an adventure program for troubled teens, while keeping his job. "The million dollars is a heck of an opportunity -- I hope I don't waste it," he said. During the run of "Survivor," Hatch was often seen naked (with his private parts discretely obscured by the CBS editors) leading late night talk show host David Letterman to refer to Hatch as "the naked fat guy." Now maybe Hatch can afford to buy some clothes.
Like the rest of the series, the final installment was drawn out with fake suspense. Clearly, the producers knew they had a captive audience at the end, which included the increasingly bored and bitter Survivors, and the show was edited accordingly. Susan Hawk, the loudmouthed truck-driver who was the first of the last four to be eliminated, compared the last two survivors to the snakes and rats that are the only wildlife on the island of Palau Tiga. She called the cunning Hatch a snake and accused her former friend Kelly Wiglesworth of becoming a rat, saying that if she found Wiglesworth dying of thirst, she would leave her to the vultures.
Why did "Survivor" work? It combined many of the things Americans like best: soap, sex, sports, gossip, mystery and money, all on a tropical isle. Despite the business types who insist on comparing "Survivor" to a corporate boardroom, the island always seemed more like a high school cafeteria, complete with cliques, food fights, and people who would stab you in the back for a seat at the right table. The members of the final four -- Hatch, Wiglesworth, Hawk, and Rudy Boesch -- were not the best athletes or the prettiest people. They were the people who were devious enough to figure out how to play the game.
The show excelled at prodding the contestants for nasty comments and then splashing them on screen. The viewers saw the contestants at their worst behavior -- from duplicity to backstabbing to self-justifying rants at the camera. This may be the predictable way that people will behave when the rules are structured to undermine cooperation, nothing is at risk but money, and the contestants know they'll never have to see one another again. The big question is whether the TV viewers, particularly the younger ones, will conclude that backstabbing and betrayal are acceptable norms of behavior for everyday life.
Hatch claims that it was a matter of will and wiles that earned him the $1 million prize. "I think I managed to win by planning early, and by early I mean before I got there," he said. As the 15 other castaways made friends and kicked back, Hatch was the first and most eager schemer, engineering the alliance that he says was "absolutely essential" to his winning. He recruited Boesch as its first member "without him even knowing it," Hatch gloats. "He had no idea." What's clear is that Hatch went into the game fully understanding the cunning and duplicity required to win it.
In the final round, Hatch was paired against river-rafting guide Wiglesworth, who won five consecutive immunity challenges and wound up with $100,000. Earlier in the episode, the final four answered trivia questions about one another, walked across burning coals, and held onto a pole for hours. In the show's first tie-breaking vote, truck driver Hawk was ejected. She was followed by crusty retired Navy SEAL Boesch, the overwhelming favorite among viewers to take the prize.
Though the 39-day competition on Pulau Tiga concluded in the spring, CBS and the contestants managed to keep it a secret. The sixteen contestants up for the $1 million prize not only had to fight the sun, surf, and pesky rats of a tropical Malaysian island, they had to battle each other. Each week, island residents gathered together to oust one of their own until a final four remained.
"Survivor" first aired in June with 16 contestants made up of a cross-section of Americans culled from 6,000 applicants, all vying for a chance to win $1 million by lasting longest in the wild. The competition was taped earlier this year on the Malaysian island of Palau Tiga, 20 miles off the coast of Borneo, with the Pagong tribe assigned to one end of the island and the Tagi tribe at the other end. The island is home to the comfy Palau Tiga Resort -- not quite as remote as CBS would have you believe. By the fifth episode, scheming Hatch had masterminded an alliance with Wiglesworth, Boesch, and Hawk to systemically vote their opponents off the island. It worked, too: the four survived until the last show. Each week, the contestants played a game that would earn the winner immunity from being voted off the island that night. The lucky castaway would don a tribal necklace, a sign of protection, and sit smugly at the campfire as ballots were cast. The show regularly topped the Nielsen ratings, reaching 17.9 million households last week. Mercifully, it pushed the phrase "voted off the island" past "Is that your final answer?" as the nation's No. 1 cliche.
Columnist Marvin Kitman calls "Survivor" an example of what he calls "suck-o-vision," referring to its compelling quality to draw you in against your will. Of course, he may also be referring to the quality of the programming. To many, this type of television is like a bloody car accident or a fat woman in a bikini--you don't want to watch and you try to turn your head away, but in the end you can't resist taking a look and you end up nauseated by what you see and disgusted with your own weakness. Reality TV shows have been popular in Europe for several years. In fact, CBS based "Survivor" on the Swedish program "Expedition Robinson." Such a show doesn't come without risks. On "Expedition Robinson," two years ago, the first member to be voted out committed suicide a month later. CBS producers claim they took extra care in doing physical and psychological screenings to avoid a similar occurrence.
While the last survivor walked away with $1 million this evening, the real financial windfall goes to CBS and owner Viacom. Last night's 2-hour finale drew 52 million viewers, more than any other show this year except the Super Bowl. Advertisers spent as much as $600,000 for 30 seconds during last night's finale. That's up from $100,000 when the show first aired in May. And it's the most CBS has ever collected for a regular summer show, though it trails such stratospheric prices as the nearly $1.7 million NBC got for 30 seconds on the Seinfeld finale in 1998. The show also had spin off benefits for CBS:
- Younger viewers. Since "Survivor" began in May, the average viewer age declined to 48.3 years old from 53. That's a coup because the most-coveted age group for advertisers is 18-49. CBS traditionally ranked near the bottom of the six broadcast networks for young adults.
- Product placement. CBS was able to place several sponsors' products in the show, including Bud Light beer, Ericsson cellphones, and Dr. Scholl's footpads.
- Fueling other shows. CBS has used "Survivor" to hype its fall lineup. While CBS is airing a 2-hour version this evening followed by an hour of talk with the contestants, several affiliates are running their own half-hour curtain raisers ahead of the main event.
- New advertisers. Before "Survivor," Reebok had never run regularly scheduled ads tied to a show. But it was one of "Survivor's" nine major sponsors from the start. Reebok ran two spots last night created especially for the finale. Unlike several of the new advertisers that had to pay higher rates, Reebok's rates were locked in. That was one of Reebok's benefits of coming in very early as a sponsor.
CBS already has a sequel in the works, and advertising executives say rates for "Survivor 2," which hits the air in January, may start at $300,000 for 30 seconds. "Survivor 2" will be filmed in Australia beginning in October. The series will begin airing Jan. 28, after the Super Bowl. Nearly 50,000 would-be contestants have applied, eight times as many as for the first series. The 16 picked to go will have an edge over their predecessors. Each now knows the formula for success employed by all four remaining contestants in "Survivor 1" -- backstabbing, lying, and manipulation win out over likability or friendship. One would hope that the contestants aren't eaten by crocodiles, but it would make a more for a more interesting show. Maybe the people "voted off the continent" will be fed to the crocodiles.
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