It took a deadly shark to draw us away from summer fun and into a darkened theatre. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws captured our attention through the scorching months of 1975 and firmly and forever conjoined the terms summer and blockbuster in our minds. And so, as we wonder what the next big hit of the season will be, Star writers look at blockbusters of the past — not just movies, but everything from art to music — looking for lessons on what made these works ripe for such phenomenal success. Today, the TV show Survivor.
Summer television is for reruns.
At least that was the traditional thinking of network executives who saved their powder and marketing dollars for the traditional fall lineup of new shows.
Summer TV was the sad, much less glamorous stepsister to the movies. With the return of sunshine, movie blockbusters ruled. The prevalent wisdom was that viewers didn’t want to stay at home tied to their TV sets when they could be outside doing other things.
No executive was seriously thinking about creating a “summer blockbuster” TV series because the category didn’t exist.
But that thinking has changed dramatically as networks, spurred on by the competitive push of cable and digital networks, have moved to “seasonless” programming.
Certainly, a good deal of the credit goes to CBS’s popular reality show Survivor, which debuted in 2000.
Survivor has created a phenomenon that has endured for 28 seasons, spawned a plethora of imitators and legitimized a genre that has now become ubiquitous.
“It started at a time when the summer was seen as something of a dead zone, a death trap for television,” says New York based media analyst Marc Berman, editor in chief of TV Media Insights. “If you picked one show in the history of television that launched in the summer and had the most influence on the industry, this would be it.”
When CBS boss Les Moonves green-lit the show he didn’t put it on the fall schedule because he didn’t think it would cut it against scripted fare. So he released it in summer when there was less competition for eyeballs.
The TV landscape was much different when Survivor debuted. Networks, despite the incursion of cable, still ruled the roost. Netflix was about distributing DVDs by snail mail, not creating Emmy Award-winning TV content. Binge watching wasn’t a candidate for word of the year. And Malcolm in the Middle and Gilmore Girls ruled the airwaves.
“Television critics really hadn’t seen anything like it. It took the reality genre and added this kind of brutal competitive element to it,” said Berman.
Survivor became an immediate sensation.
Imagine a kind of Gilligan’s Island for sado-masochists.
There is perhaps no more elemental storyline than plopping 16 men and women on a desert island (18 competitors in the last incarnation) and having them fend for themselves, where lying is a virtue and weakness is not tolerated. Outwit. Outlast. Outplay. The Jacks and Piggys quickly emerge in a modern-day Lord of the Flies.
It also proved that reality television could be quality television. That compelling storylines with a beginning, a middle and an end could be told with real folk. That reality could be a heck of a lot more interesting than scripted programming. And it made genuine stars of the players involved.
“I think what it may have proved is that unscripted TV could be as valuable as news, comedy and drama,” survivor producer Mark Burnett told me in Los Angeles during a television conference. “It’s now as foundational as any other part of programming.”
Survivor also has a unique Canadian connection. Burnett produced a precursor to Survivor called Eco-Challenge in British Columbia in 1996 that won an Emmy Award. And his mother is Canadian.
“She’s from Hamilton, Ontario. I still have some dried Canadian maple leafs that I keep with me,” remarked Burnett with some pride. “Canada means a lot to me.”
Despite the affinity for Canada, Burnett has yet to do a Survivor Canada spinoff in the vein of other franchises such as The Bachelor and The Amazing Race.
The franchise is successful, he says, because “Everyone can relate to being Robinson Crusoe, to being marooned and trying to survive.”
The brilliance of Survivor is that it held a mirror to the darkness that resides in all of us. Would you betray your friend for a million dollars?
The questions struck at the moral core and millions of people tuned in to find out.
The finale had higher ratings than the World Series and the NBA finals that year. It would see more than 50 million people watch truck driver Susan Hawk berate corporate trainer Richard Hatch and rafting guide Kelly Wiglesworth in her infamous speech where she compared them to snakes and rats.
Anti-hero Hatch showed that being bad was good and he won a million dollars for usurping the conventions of popular narrative.
Burnett also broke ground in the way shows are marketed with seamless and unabashed product placement. Starving contestants fought to get a sip of Budweiser. They competed to win Pontiac Aztek SUVs.
Survivor also spawned a multitude of copycats, from Expedition Impossible to 72 Hours to I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here.
And conventions from the show — using a jury system, immunity idols and diverse casting — would be hugely influential on all new reality series.
Still, while Burnett is credited with demonstrating that quality reality TV could draw major audiences, he didn’t create the genre.
TV analyst Berman says that arguably goes back to Candid Camera in 1948. But Burnett’s genius was in making compelling stories out of real goings-on to rival anything on scripted TV.
Burnett, a former paratrooper, nanny and Venice Beach T-shirt salesman, purchased the rights to the idea from a British producer in 1998. The major networks rejected his idea until CBS decided to take a chance.
Fourteen years later the show is still going strong, although no subsequent season would see the season finale ratings peak of the first.
The most recent instalment, Survivor Cagayan: Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty, had several episodes that bested once formidable time slot competitor American Idol for the first time in series history, averaging 9.45 million viewers per episode.
“It debuted at the right time when there was no competition and it just took off. But I never imagined that 14 years later it would still be on the air,” says Berman. “It lasted beyond that because at the very core it wasn’t just a reality show. It was simply a very good show that challenged the best shows on television.”