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'Survivor' Continues to Outwit, Outlast, Outplay the Competition
November 16, 2015  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

[Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on Survivor and host Jeff Probst. On Tuesday, he details what it takes to become a contestant on the show and why, in the face of great odds, it has survived for 15 years and counting.]

When 51-year-old Chicago attorney Andrew Savage was sent home from  Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance this past week, it didn’t exactly make the news. One more type-A personality learned he didn’t have what it takes to win Survivor’s game of outwit, outlast and outplay — so what?

Here’s what is newsworthy, though.

Overnight ratings showed that 8.94 million viewers watched 29-year-old Seattle marketer Kelley Wentworth (left) play her hidden immunity idol, sending Savage home instead. That number was second only to The Voice, which won the time period with 10.20 million viewers.

The Voice, at little more than four-years-old, is the most talked-about, avidly watched reality-competition program on TV right now. It won the Emmy in September, stopping perennial winner The Amazing Race in the process. The Voice is formidable competition for any program, let alone one that has been on the air for 15 TV seasons.

And yet . . . Survivor has found a way not just to survive but thrive. The original stranded-on-a-desert-island competition series that popularized such catch phrases as, “The tribe has spoken,” and, “Fire is life,” is in its 15th year.

The remarkable thing is not that it is running a hair behind TV’s most-watched competition program of the moment in the same time period. The remarkable thing is that Survivor has survived at all. After a period of slow but steady ratings decline, the ratings have stabilized in recent years — during a time when audience habits are changing rapidly and ratings for most long-running series, even popular ones, are suffering gradual decline.

What this suggests is that Survivor has found a core following and locked on to it. That following has proven to be loyal to a fault, even when a season disappoints — as, inevitably, one will.

The format has remained much the same during that time, with both individual and group challenges, followed by a group vote in which one contestant is eliminated by majority consensus. The producers have made small modifications along the way, though, in a bid to keep the show fresh.

Those modifications have been subtle — nothing so dramatic as to upset the rhythm of the game — but they’ve been enough to keep the contestants, and the audience, guessing.

The real secret to Survivor success, though, lies in the vagaries of human nature, and how different people react differently when faced with stressful situations. (Jeff Probst extinguishes Andrew Savage's torch at Tribal Council, last episode, left) Adversity, combined with sensory deprivation, has a way of revealing people’s inner selves. Being stranded in a remote location isn’t life-threatening in itself, not on Survivor anyway. Being deprived of food, creature comforts and the familiarity of home, however, can test a person’s resilience in different, often unexpected ways. When coupled with an awkward social setting, Survivor brings out both the best and the worst in people.

More importantly for the audience watching at home, Survivor can be relatable in surprising, often personal ways. We see a part of ourselves in individual castaways in any given season. We form likes and dislikes, develop bonds with certain contestants and often end up questioning whether we’d react the same way, given a similar situation. That’s rare for a TV series, let alone a reality-competition program.

Consider this: As of right now, Survivor has outlasted CSI, which quietly ended its run in September after 15 TV seasons and more than 300 episodes. American Idol will call it a day in May, after bowing in June 2002, little more than two years after Survivor's debut in May 2000.

At its present rate of production, Survivor will air its 500th episode little more than a year from now, in November 2016, almost to the day.

That’s extraordinary — all the more extraordinary given today’s fickle audience’s tastes. Survivor is not just a survivor. It’s proven to be a winner, one of the most remarkable, unexpected winners in the history of the medium.

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Helen Rowe Allen
I just finished a Season One splurge of SURVIVOR on Amazon Video.
Richard Hatch was not as intriguing, witty as I had thought first time around.
The format has changed & too my surprise, not for the better.
Nov 16, 2015   |  Reply
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