Introduces Audiences to “Reality TV” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Originally scheduled as a summer television show, Survivor, a hybrid game and adventure show tied together with drama, was so popular that it became part of the CBS network’s regular-season prime-time lineup. The show’s success led to the development of many other so-called reality programs.

Summary of Event

The inspiration for Survivor was Mark Burnett’s involvement with Eco-Challenge, an eight- to ten-day grueling expedition race held in various worldwide locales. Burnett was intrigued not only by the physical aspect of the race but also by the team dynamics and how individuals adapted to the conditions and their fellow team members. Looking to develop such an activity for television, Burnett negotiated for the American and Canadian broadcasting rights with Charlie Parsons, a British television producer who created the concept for Survivor. The search for a television network to air the show took years, but the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) decided to take a chance and ordered thirteen prime-time hours of Survivor for the summer of 2000. Survivor (television program) Television programs;Survivor Television;reality programming Reality television [kw]Survivor Introduces Audiences to “Reality TV” (Mar. 31, 2000) [kw]"Reality TV", Survivor Introduces Audiences to (Mar. 31, 2000) Survivor (television program) Television programs;Survivor Television;reality programming Reality television [g]North America;Mar. 31, 2000: Survivor Introduces Audiences to “Reality TV”[10660] [g]United States;Mar. 31, 2000: Survivor Introduces Audiences to “Reality TV”[10660] [c]Radio and television;Mar. 31, 2000: Survivor Introduces Audiences to “Reality TV”[10660] Burnett, Mark Probst, Jeff Hatch, Richard

In a press release, Burnett described the show as “two parts adventure contest and eight parts surviving the peer group.” The location selected was Pulau Tiga, a small island off the coast of Borneo, populated by sand fleas, pythons, and other nasty creatures. More than six thousand prospective castaways responded to the call to participate. From this number, eight hundred were interviewed, and forty-eight finalists were selected. Following intense background checks and psychological evaluations, sixteen people, plus two alternates, were selected. They were a diverse group, from various areas of the United States and of all ages, backgrounds, and occupations.

The island was prepared for the arrival of the castaways and the sixty-five-member production staff and camera crew. Support personnel would have living quarters and the luxury of one television, one phone line, and cold-water showers. Castaways would have nothing. A set was constructed for the “tribal council,” where participants would vote one person out of their “tribe” every three days. To ensure that the television audience would see and hear all the action and conversations of the castaways, hidden microphones and infrared cameras were installed, supplementing the hand-held cameras and boom mikes the contestants would see. As Burnett explained in Survivor: The Ultimate Game (2000), the castaways “won’t have a moment’s privacy.” For every one-hour television broadcast, more than one hundred hours of tape would be edited down. The future castaways were isolated from each other until March 13, 2000, the day of the “shipwreck.”

Before the shipwreck, Burnett and his staff removed all but essential clothing from each castaway’s small island-bound pack. On March 13, on the boat taking them to Pulau, castaways finally met each other and were split into two tribes, identified by different colored bandannas. As the boat approached the island, Jeff Probst, the “chief,” announced, “You have two minutes to grab everything you need and get off this boat.” Castaways started taking whatever they thought might help them survive on the island and leaped into the sea. Following a difficult ninety-minute swim to shore, they made camp. The routine established in this first Survivor was followed, with a few exceptions, in subsequent games. Castaways would spend thirty-nine days in a primitive setting; every few days the teams competed in a “rewards challenge”; the prize was commonly vital equipment, such as fish hooks or food, or contact with family. A second regular competition was the “immunity challenge.” The winning team did not have to go to tribal council. Preceding the vote, Probst spoke to individual tribe members, asking probing questions about other members. Once Probst read the votes, the tribe member had to extinguish his or her torch, symbolizing life as a survivor, and walk away.

Although Burnett predicted Richard Hatch would be the first castaway voted off because of his “Falstaffian figure” and his overbearing manner, Hatch toned down his self-confident, arrogant demeanor and spent hours fishing, providing food for his tribe. After the combined tribe numbers had shrunk to ten, the tribes merged; both competitions continued, but the immunity challenges were individual. Those who were voted off became members of the jury that would eventually decide between the final two castaways, determining who won the million-dollar prize. For this first Survivor, titled Survivor: Borneo, the choice was between Hatch and Kelly Wiglesworth. Hatch won in a four-to-three vote.

Survivor premiered on March 31, 2000. Audience response to the show was astonishing; it was rated number one in network prime time with twenty-seven million viewers. In the final three episodes, CBS earned fifty million dollars in advertising revenue. The show was awarded a place on regular prime time and switched from Wednesday to Thursday nights. Subsequent programs followed the same basic format. The locales selected were exotic in the sense of being remote and having no amenities. Survivors had to learn to live off the land and cooperate with strangers. They were also playing a game to outlast the others and win a million dollars.

The second season of Survivor, subtitled The Australian Outback, received forty-nine thousand initial applicants. The show premiered, following the Super Bowl, to more than forty-five million viewers. Survivor: Africa was set in Kenya’s Shaba National Reserve. The fourth Survivor was planned for Jordan, but after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Burnett changed locations to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. Subsequent Survivor seasons were filmed in Thailand, the Amazon—where, for the first time, the tribes were divided into male and female—and the Pearl Islands.

The eighth Survivor season was also filmed in the Pearl Islands but differed in that the eighteen survivors had been previous contestants. Amber Brkich won by a vote of four to three over Rob Mariano; just before the vote, Rob proposed marriage to Amber, thrilling the television audience. The ninth season was filmed on Vanuatu; the tenth survivor was on Palau, in the Philippine Sea; Survivor: Guatemala—The Maya Empire had eighteen survivors, two from Survivor: Palau. Survivor: Panama—Exile Island, also set on the Pearl Islands, was unique in that the tribes were divided by sex and age (young and old). Other twists included the banishment of one tribe member to Exile Island by the opposing tribe and a “hidden individual immunity idol” on the island. These new twists were continued in the thirteenth season, titled Cook Islands. This Survivor caused a furor when tribes were initially divided by race: African American, Caucasian, Hispanic, and Asian. Several longtime advertisers withdrew their sponsorship, indicating their displeasure. The final two contestants were a Hispanic, Ozzy Lusth, and an Asian, Yul Kwon, who won.

Significance

Reality television was not a new concept when Survivor made television history in 2000. Unscripted programming was popular in the early days of television, including such shows as Queen for a Day and the voyeuristic Candid Camera. During the 1980’s, when production costs were rising and television writers went on strike, network executives realized that reality shows were not only cheaper to produce but also generally “strike proof.” However, it was not until Survivor premiered that the new age of reality television was born.

Survivor shattered the record for the most popular summer series ever and commanded increasing advertising revenue not realized in previous reality shows. What attracted millions of viewers were the show’s fast-paced action and complicated plots that provided both suspense, to see who would be voted off, and resolution, as the tribe members one by one put out their torches and walked away. Audiences were intrigued by the exotic locations, local customs, native celebrations, and indigenous animals and plants showcased by the series. The back-to-nature aspect as well as the survival-of-the-fittest concept also contributed to the show’s success. What was most captivating was the show’s unpredictability, as producers were continually throwing in changes to keep both the television audience and the castaways guessing.

Survivor was more expensive to produce than previous reality shows had been. Burnett realized that American viewers expected top-notch production values, so he gave the show a cinematic look that was as good as, if not better than, the look of a typical network drama series. Burnett stated that he wanted his television show to look like a movie; the high advertising revenues that Survivor commanded amply covered production costs.

The success of Survivor led to other reality shows. Reality TV was no longer a cheap form of “niche programming.” It became a popular programming trend and a genre of its own, resulting in new Emmy Award Emmy Awards categories. In 2001, Survivor won Emmys for Outstanding Nonfiction Programming and Outstanding Sound Mixing for Nonfiction Programming. The show drew huge audiences that covered a wide demographic. Viewers liked the prospect of guessing a winner and watching the often cutthroat dynamics among tribe members. Survivor (television program) Television programs;Survivor Television;reality programming Reality television

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andrejevic, Mark. Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. In addition to considerable information on the inception of reality TV and a number of shows based on this concept, there is a separate chapter on Survivor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burnett, Mark. Survivor: The Ultimate Game. New York: TV Books, 2000. Detailed look at the first season of Survivor: selecting contestants, location in Borneo, the challenges, and the politics of playing the game.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Survivor II: The Field Guide. New York: TV Books, 2001. More background information, including a chapter on casting Survivor II, and strategies for winning the game.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haralovich, Mary Beth, and Michael W. Trosset. “’Expect the Unexpected’: Narrative Pleasure and Uncertainty Due to Chance in Survivor.” In Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, edited by Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette. New York: New York University Press, 2004. Discusses the elements of chance and the show as a hybrid of game and adventure.

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