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Reality Bites (Back): Can "Survivor" Survive?


By Ben Patrick Johnson

LOS ANGELES, 26 October 2001 - Joan Didion began her 1997 novel The Last Thing He Wanted with a simple sentence that is prophetic in light of recent world events:

"Some real things have happened lately."

It is especially keen to the American popular consciousness, drowsied by a relentless parade of television reports from the Middle East -- a never-ending box-score of car bombings and turf battles in far-off places with odd-sounding names. Shaky video images, drawn from a palette weighted toward black, brown and sandy beige, showed perpetrators and victims who were blurred and, anyhow, foreign. Meanwhile, America's audience of emotionally disengaged thrill-cravers greedily gobbled instead reality-based television shows. The networks had been developing these as a cost-cutting alternative to the increasing production costs and "ransom" star salary demands associated with hit dramatic series, then rushed them to air to hedge against the summer 2000 threat of a Hollywood actors' and writers' strike. (If actors and writers were to become suddenly unavailable, the networks would have plenty of programming that required neither.)

"Survivor" was a success for CBS, and the British import game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" did ratings wonders for ABC, quickly becoming a four-nights-weekly staple. With the pipeline of comedy and drama shows threatening to dry up, networks were all too eager to fill their schedules with reality programs like "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?", "Temptation Island", and another British quiz, "The Weakest Link."

In the end, the strikes were averted, but audiences -- and the networks - were hooked on the new format.

Media critics bemoaned the dearth of new dramatic fare, forecasting a gloomy television landscape littered with base, sensationalist flotsam. Their protests on behalf of high-quality dramatic programming fell on deaf ears: American viewers had found some REAL drama to sink their teeth into, and all over Hollywood and midtown Manhattan, executives were busy meeting with producers, entertaining pitch after pitch for new shows (and buying an alarming number of them.)

In less than one season, there was a glut of reality programming, with predictable results. "Love Cruise" floundered in ratings shallows, "Elimidate Deluxe" gave viewers sweaty palms, and the carelessly-staged "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" spawned a public-relations fiasco, while "Boot Camp" marched forward with determination if not ratings briskness.

Then, on September 11th of this year, the fate of the genre was further confounded: some real things happened.

Planes disappeared into buildings every American knew and burrowed violently into grassy woods near home. Concrete and glass fell like volcanic ash from Mt. St. Helens or, perhaps, Vesuvius. Grainy television pictures from the Middle East were no longer muted, but red, white, blue, and fiery amber, when flames licked at American flags to the cheers of foreigners who were suddenly and vividly demanding attention. Network news anchors Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, along with their bevy of cable colleagues, were the television stars of the hour, hour after hour, for days on end. Later, they returned to fore after receiving letters in the mail containing a mysterious white powder intended to terrify, if not kill, them.

The Primetime Emmy Awards were postponed (and were delayed again when the event coincided with the commencement of US bombing raids on Afghan Taliban strongholds.) The networks reportedly lost hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue. The start of the fall 2001 television season was pushed back.

And when the smoke began to clear, literally and figuratively, network brass was leery about just how much more reality the American public would buy.

Jay Leno's "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Show with David Letterman" were cautious and somber following their unexpected hiatus. Show writers and network executives said they didn't believe there was much Americans would find humorous. "Saturday Night Live" tipped its hat to its beleaguered hometown by having mayor Rudy Giuliani offer the show's signature shout-out opening, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night," but otherwise made little mention of the events occupying the nation's hearts and minds.

Ratings for reality shows free-fell, and so did the proverbial axe.

One of the first casualties was "The Mole 2", which, according to Daily Variety, ABC has put on indefinite hiatus, though the show may be allowed a re-appearance next year. On Friday of last week, ABC Entertainment Group Co-Chairman Lloyd Braun continued the network's blood-letting, shelving the series "The Runner", conceived by actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, with the ominous declaration, "Today's television environment would not be conducive to this type of event."

Of the reality shows left on the air, only a few have held onto a respectable ratings share, including the venerable "Survivor", set this time in Africa, which finished in 7th place for the week of October 11th. It was the only non-dramatic program in the top ten -- a rarity in recent times.

"The bottom line is that 'Survivor' is the main ingredient in the genre and the genre is just not over yet," Mediaweek Online's Marc Berman confidently told the New York Post.

However, on October 18th, two days after Berman's comments, "Survivor: Africa" stumbled, leaving CBS handily bested in the first half of the time slot by NBC's "Friends".

On cable, Fox Sports Net's "You Gotta See This!" has been a standout. Despite the overall reality ratings slide, "YGST" has retained its position as that network's most-watched series. Jeff Yarbrough, the program's Executive Producer, believes his show's ratings stability is due to the different tone it has taken since September 11th:

"We have a variety of ways to soften the impact of a story," he says. "We decided to pull back on the gore aspect of the show, just because my stomach is a little more sensitive than it was before. When you think about the people in the buildings and on the planes, you start seeing injuries differently. It makes them more painful to look at."

Yarbrough insists the change is not the result of a network directive: "Our show is one of the only ones in this genre performing well in the ratings. I think [Fox] is reticent to ask for a change in the style of it. They know they might kill it."

Stuart Krasnow, Executive Producer for "The Weakest Link", echoes Yarbrough's claim that the networks have, by and large, left choices in the hands of the shows themselves - at least for those with the good fortune to still be on the air. "All of us who [produce programs] are self-policing our content. As a game show, we're not asking Osama Bin Laden questions. Of the new content, everyone's avoiding references to negative events in the world."

But Dean Devlin, producer of the feature film Armageddon, suggested to the Los Angeles Times that Hollywood executives may indeed be over-reacting: "I was shocked the week after the event when I looked at the video rentals. All the movies about terrorists were renting through the roof."

Why would made-up stories about events similar to real-world horror suddenly be more appealing at the same time interest in reality shows lags?

"It's a coping strategy, frankly, when there's such a dearth of information," says Dr. Alan Schneider, Director of the Department of Psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "People were just so stunned. In an attempt to inform themselves, I can see why they would go out and rent more movies about terrorism. It's a strategy to reduce our own anxiety. "

Exhibitor Relations chief Paul Dergarabedian has a different take: "People know the difference between fantasy and reality," he told Bloomberg News after the opening-weekend number-one box office finish for the graphic, bloody drama From Hell. "They just want to be entertained."

Although ratings, and the advertising revenue they portend, will ultimately determine how networks proceed, the emotionally bruised audience's needs may be most immediately satisfied by a shotgun wedding of fiction and real world events.

Reaction was positive for a hastily assembled episode of NBC's White House drama "The West Wing" which dealt specifically with the notion of a terrorist threat, and likewise positive for an unusual episode of the peacock network's "Third Watch", in which the actors stepped out of their roles as emergency police and fire workers in New York to speak directly to the camera and interview people affected by the tragedy.

Could this concept be taken too far? There is a disturbing rumor afoot that CBS President Les Moonves is hard at work developing a comedy series about a widower of the Trade Center collapse who becomes romantically involved with a woman widowed by the event.

"It's hard to believe that something like that would happen even in the sitcom world," says Dr. Schneider, waving off the suggestion that such a program could be a tool for Americans to deal with their residual fear and sorrow. "It strikes me as incredibly bad taste. I don't think it's going to help anybody. There's nothing reparative about something like that."

Whether America follows Dr. Schneider's advice and stays away from such a show, it seems clear that "Survivor" -- along with others in the reality genre -- will live on only if they can evolve, adapting to changes in their environment and doing so with heightened emotional sensitivity.

Krasnow explains the Hollywood version of natural selection: "This was the year when we had more reality shows premiering than ever before. Some were good and some were not so good. And I think good shows always prevail whether they're reality, drama or comedy."

Call it Survival of the Fittest.

Ben Patrick Johnson is a writer and free-lance journalist in Los Angeles. His novel, The Valley of Smoke, will be published by Palari Press in 2002.

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