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‘Survivor’: I Came for the Scenery, but Stayed for the Social Game
February 28, 2018  | By Alex Strachan
 

Confession: I’ve not missed a minute of Survivor since it first aired on May 31, 2000. From that opening moment — a soaring, sweeping helicopter view of the South China Sea and a remote Malaysian island some six miles off the northern coast of Borneo — I knew this wasn’t going to be one of those rote, by-the-book reality shows, made on-the-fly and done on-the-cheap, shot on a backlot somewhere in Burbank, in a fake house with a false storefront.
 
As Mark Burnett and then-host Jeff Probst (below) — Probst is now both host and co-executive producer, and very hands-on with the show — knew, however, exotic locations and hot bods alone weren’t going to cut it.
 
Burnett, a one-time Parachute Regiment squad leader in Her Majesty’s British Army who saw combat duty in the Falklands War, was interested in human nature and how ordinary, everyday people react when placed in trying, unexpected circumstances, where nothing is familiar, not even the food you eat or the mattress you sleep on at night.
 
Burnett left the military — he considered himself to be tough, but he did not care to see men he knew well, close friends, die in combat — and briefly became a film liaison for the British Film office in Los Angeles. He sold T-shirts on Venice Beach, tried his hand at documentary filmmaking, and went native. He applied for American citizenship and is now as American as they come, Scots-British accent and all.
 
It’s hard to remember now — many viewers, including the inestimable and worthy founder of this site, are fed up with Survivor and believe it has run its course — but Burnett’s first success was with the 1995-2002 expedition-race series Eco-Challenge.
 
Burnett saw Eco-Challenge as a way to both test driven, outdoor-oriented adventurers in a team challenge and a way to expose ordinary TV viewers the majesty and wonders of the world’s last remaining wild landscapes.
 
Over the years, Eco-Challenge ran expedition races through Patagonia, British Columbia, Australia, Morocco and, yes, Borneo.

And so, when the time came to place ordinary, everyday people in a similar situation — everyone from chartered accountants and social workers to firefighters and shop employees — Borneo seemed a natural fit.
 
Survivor’s parent network CBS assumed the show would be a disaster; they likely approved it just to make the notoriously loud, headstrong Burnett go away.
 
As CBS boss Leslie Moonves once told this correspondent, now with TVWW: “If I knew what I was doing, I wouldn’t have put Survivor on in the summer.” (Direct quote, by the way. This is all true.)
 
Survivor became the phenomenon Burnett always insisted it could be. Moonves, despite his more than two decades at the helm of U.S. domestic television’s most successful commercial broadcast network, will be the first to admit he was startled by Survivor’s initial success.
 
For the plain simple truth of the matter was that Survivor hit straight out of the box. This wasn’t a story about a slow growth curve over time. Survivor landed post-Memorial Day, at the beginning of the dog days of summer, and it just exploded. Simple as that.
 
That summer’s finale (right) was watched by 51.7 million viewers, and became the stuff of legend.
 
To put that number in perspective, today’s most-watched drama, NCIS, averages 18.5 million viewers each week across the U.S., and The Big Bang Theory averages 20 million viewers a week, in that same market.
 
True, Survivor today is not what Survivor was then. Survivor’s audience averages just 11 million viewers, if the word “just” applies in this age of dwindling audience share across the board, thanks in the main to competition from Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon.
 
Those 11 million viewers represent a respectable number, enough that Survivor is not in imminent danger of cancellation due to low ratings.
 
More importantly, as Probst recently told TVWW, that audience has held steady over the last several years. In the increasingly unpredictable, fractious world of broadcast television, consistency counts for a lot. Survivor has a loyal following, Probst says, an audience it can count on, year-in and year-out.
 
“The fans who are watching our show pretty much know what to expect going in,” he says. “They’re loyal. It’s not going to explode, and neither is it going to implode.”
 
Probst is realistic enough to know that Survivor is unlikely to ever again be the pop-cultural phenomenon it was in the fall and winter of 2000 — interestingly, Survivor survived the audience turmoil in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks — but unlike many other, long-running reality programs, Survivor is not about to fall off a cliff anytime soon. Not figuratively, anyway. (A Survivor contestant has yet to take an actual tumble off a cliff, but that day may yet come. Call Survivor what you will, Probst says, but it is not staged.)
 
In those early days, I came for the scenery but stayed for the social game. What took me by surprise was how addictive the social interaction between contestants was, the way different personalities rubbed up against one another, literally and figuratively.
 
I was in the middle of a personal crisis at the time, and was floored by the way Survivor reflected the petty jealousies and meanness — but also the humanity and small moments of kindness — of office politics and interpersonal relationships.
 
My theory: Many of those viewers who watched the first season’s finale on Aug. 23, 2000 were there because they genuinely wanted to know who would win — not the name of the person, necessarily, as much as the personality type the jury members decided most deserved to win the title of ‘sole survivor’ and the million-dollar prize that went with it. Many of those early, curious viewers drifted away from the show over the seasons — though, interestingly, Survivor held onto its core base even as fresher, newer, seemingly more lively reality competitions like American Idol burned brightly and then faded into the black. The Voice is doing remarkably well today, and deservedly so, but hardly anyone will gamble that it can last 35 seasons.
 
As someone who has stayed true to Survivor over 18 years, I can say this: Survivor’s producers and showrunners have shown a remarkable, almost eerie ability to tweak and turn and steer the program in unexpected directions, while keeping the basic format the same: Lord of the Flies meets The Jury, updated for modern times. Eventual success depends not on how well one can master the elements and adapt to an unfamiliar environment, but whether one can get along with others, all the while pressed by hunger, tiredness, and physical discomfort.

Survivor: Ghost Island — the 36th season — debuts Wednesday, and once again there’s a neat trick.
 
This time, the game is bringing back previous contestants who lost the game owing to a catastrophic decision or single mistake. Do we learn from our mistakes? Can we learn from our mistakes? Or are we hard-wired at birth to behave a certain way given similar circumstances, no matter, even if past experience tells us that behaving the same way will cause the same thing to happen again?
 
Do people change? Or, as a famous philosopher once said, is it more likely that none of us truly changes; we simply become more of who we are.
 
It’s questions like this that have compelled me to stay with Survivor and return over the years. It’s questions like this, Probst once told your TVWW correspondent, that have kept him coming back to the show, year after year, season after season — if anything, even more jazzed and enthused about what may happen next, whether the better angels of humanity — forgiveness, self-sacrifice, our innate willingness to help someone less fortunate than ourselves — can trump temptation and pure self-interest. The small acts of kindness in Survivor can be something as seemingly trivial as helping a falling teammate through a team challenge, knowing that one day that teammate may be what stands between you and a million dollars, or as deep-rooted and meaningful as making someone feel better about themselves in a way that will transcend the game and stay with them long after they’ve returned to their old life and the TV cameras are no longer there.
 
Yes, there are those viewers who have left Survivor and are unlikely to come back. And there are those viewers who have never seen a single episode, and aren’t about to start now.
 
For those who know and love the game, though, who still harbor a measure of affection for Survivor’s basic questions about human nature, Ghost Island, it seems to me, has come up with a near-perfect twist. Again. We are who we are. We all make mistakes, Sometimes, life-changing mistakes.
 
Knowing that, are we likely to repeat those mistakes, knowing what happened the last time? A child who burns their hand on a hot stove knows not to touch that stove again. But when the question is something as hardwired into our brains as personality, it’s no longer that simple.
 
If Survivor teaches us anything — and as a fan, I happen to think it can teach a lot — it’s that no one can predict the outcome of one’s personal actions, even based on past experience.
 
In person, Probst is self-effacing and quick to admit his own miscalculations. He is continuously surprised — floored, even — by some of the decisions Survivor contestants make, even if the right decision appears to be staring them in the face.
 
Survivor’s detractors often ask: Why is it still on the air? Why has it lasted so long?
 
I don’t have an easy answer. Instead, I offer a hint, a clue if you will.
 
Jeff Probst, the show’s host, hasn’t become jaded yet, despite having been there for every single minute of filming, despite becoming wealthy enough from the show — I assume — that he can walk away and not even feel it. If the show’s host hasn’t become jaded, then, surely there are more than a few viewers at home — and I count myself among them — who haven’t become jaded either.

I have no idea who will win Survivor: Ghost Island. I won’t even hazard a guess. This is one TV journey where, for me, the journey is as interesting as the destination.

Thirty-six seasons. Think about that. The tribe has truly spoken.
 
 
 
 
 
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