Survivor: Mean People Suck, But Think of the Demographics!
by Brian T. Armbrust


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.

In 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


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