Any day now, 16 Americans-the cast of Survivor:
Africa-will be whisked to Kenya, where they will compete with
one another in the hopes of winning one million dollars. Although
the season hasn't even begun, I already know who wins.
the first season, the nice folks lost to the nasty people; in
the second, the nasty people lost to the nice folks. Well, that's
what the editing suggested, anyway.
The genius of Survivor is in its practice of
carefully editing its players to represent specific personae-even
though these people are real, they might as well be portraying
carefully written, previously scripted roles. Producer Mark Burnett-perhaps
the greatest showman on television since Norman Lear-knows his
American audience, even if he himself is Australian.
The first season through, he knew that Survivor
needed notoriety to stand out among a gaggle of summer reality
programs. And it worked. One year ago, water cooler conversation
was dominated by talk of the heinous Tagi Alliance-four mean folks
who banded together to eliminate one-by-one their nice-but-clueless
competitors. In the end, evil turned on evil, culminating in a
ratings spectacular of a final episode in which a wrathful Susan
Hawk turned on her former pal Kelly Wiglesworth, and which concluded
with the thoroughly unlikable Richard Hatch winning a cool million.
There was an outcry, of course. Good Americans
know that virtue always triumphs over badness, and that by playing
fair and ethically one always wins. Yeah, right! One need only
look at the last presidential election to see that this is not
the case. But in addition to maintaining a hypocritical stance
on good vs. evil, Americans also curiously demand that popular
culture must impart "positive morals" on young people.
Hence the second season of Survivor, in which
the evil characters were vanquished well before the conclusion
of the series, leaving several really nice people to compete,
one of whom won. That's what Burnett wanted us to think, anyway.
I maintain there was a lot of strategizing between the ultimately
successful Tina Wesson and her compatriot Colby Donaldson. This
was confirmed when I saw the final episode, which featured a few
seconds of very telling conversation where the pair bluntly discussed
strategy and mocked a fellow player. Doubtless there was much
more of this throughout the duration of the filming in Australia-we
just never got to see it.
Burnett couldn't let another Richard and Susan
win. Even though the game requires strategizing if one expects
to win, Burnett knew that Americans wouldn't stand for another
pair of "bad" victors. Thus, he chose to highlight other
aspects of Tina and Colby beyond their plotting. He was aided
in this by the pair themselves-the second cast clearly was very
aware of the media attention bestowed upon the first 16 players,
and most made every effort to appear likeable, dreaming of endorsement
contracts waiting to be signed on the other side of reality.
One problem: the ratings were down for the "nice"
season of Survivor. Survivor aired during the regular season and
against formidable competition on a different network, but I'm
sure that Burnett--and CBS--noticed the ratings dip.
Thus, my bold prediction: the winner of Survivor:
Africa will be a sound-bite spewing, mayhem-plotting, all-around
"bad person". Burnett needs to get us talking around
the water cooler again. After all, it's good to play nice, but
if one is a television producer on a broadcast network, better
still to rack up impressive ratings and stellar demographics.---dw