'Survivor' Skills

Forget survival of the fittest. When it comes to reality-based shows, it's all about winning the popularity contest.

June 21, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Now that we know that the CBS eye is a voyeuristic one, cashing in on the public's willingness to watch, apparently, just about anything, the question is: Can we survive "Survivor"?

And, if we're watching "Big Brother," is "Big Brother" watching us too, or maybe tuned into yet another of the so-called reality programs - "The Real World," "Road Rules" or "Making the Band."

First, the good news. We're burning through our television fads faster and faster.

Gone are the days when you could get the American public to spend an entire summer wondering who shot J.R. The Darva Conger jokes are winding down.

And one can sense the growing boredom with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Next week, ABC will rebroadcast the first spate of episodes.

Um, reruns of a game show? Are we missing something here or won't everyone already know the answers? It's "The Sixth Sense" starring Regis Philbin, and everyone watching must be a dead person.

Now, the bad news. Or maybe the good news, if you like "reality" programming (as the writer of this piece does, though her loved ones have begged her not to come clean about her "Real World" habit.) It's probably not going away any time soon, although the media, which has an even shorter attention span than the general public, will move on quickly.(For the record, in the past two months, there have been almost 200 media mentions of "Rudy," the cranky old guy who hasn't been voted off the island. Yet. Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly asked nutritionists to rate the risks of eating rats, while this publication solicited rat recipes.)

Here's why "reality" programming is here to stay:

It works. "Survivor's" audience keeps growing. More than 23 million tuned in to follow the adventures of the ambitious castaways last week. Better yet, the program is attracting young viewers, a demographic that has eluded CBS over the years. (The strategy of casting Scott Baio in "Diagnosis Murder" never did pay off.)

The economic model can't be beat. "Survivor" was guaranteed to make money before it aired because of sponsorship deals cut with various companies. Plus, the "cast" - sorry, it's impossible to write about this phenomenon without lots and lots of quotation marks - can't hold up the producers for more money for next season. Next season, they're gone!

If "Survivor" and its ilk can survive for enough seasons, they can look forward to a syndication deal. MTV's "The Real World," just beginning its ninth season, has been cleared to air re-runs in more than 85 percent of the nation's markets, according to its creator, Jon Murray. It will start airing this fall, after the Olympics are finished. That means daily doses of "The Real World" from the early years, those naive days when MTV producers had to buttonhole people on the street and persuade them to audition.

Now the show receives upwards of 35,000 applicants annually for its casts of telegenic housemates and is a year-round business for Murray and his partner, Mary-Ellis Bunim.

Speaking of Murray, how does he feel watching this grown-up version of "Road Rules," - his other MTV show in which six kids travel together performing elaborate "missions" - become network TV's newest hit?

"I like it," he says from Los Angeles, where he is overseeing editing on this year's "The Real World," the one taped in New Orleans over the winter and just now airing. "I can see why people are watching it."

"Survivor," Murray says, combines "reality" programming with a game show aspect. People watch it for as many reasons as there are people.

Some audience members experience it as camp. Others identify with certain cast members and are caught up in rooting for or against them.

"And some people watch it like a car accident," he says.

He is not jealous of "Survivor," which reaches far more viewers than a cable show can. Nor does it bother him that the networks decided to try "reality" programming only after seeing the success of "Survivor" and "Big Brother" - a show that monitors a household of people 24 hours day, not unlike "The Real World" - in Europe. He figures this will just create more opportunities for his ever-growing production company. Some of "Big Brother's" crew members, he points out, are "Real World" veterans.

"We've been knocking on doors for years, trying to sell programs to the networks," he recalls. "Everyone said, `Where's the script?'"

Now, everyone's asking "Where's the next `Survivor?' " and CBS has already begun taking applications for "Survivor II," to be filmed in the Australian outback.

But if you want to talk reality programming, don't talk to "Survivor's" producer. He considers his show to be something a little different.

"Reality TV is a show like `Cops,'" Mark Burnett said on the CNN show `TalkBack Live" earlier this month. "This is more `dramality,' like a drama meets reality."

Dramality. Certainly any trend that enriches the English language in this way can't be all bad.

To apply for "Survivor II," go to the CBS Web site (www.cbs.com), click on the "Survivor" link and print out the form. Applicants have to be 21, a U.S. citizen, in "excellent" health and capable of passing a background check. (The last is only for those who reach the semi-finals.)

Among questions that must be answered: "If you could hold any political office, what would it be and why?" and "Have you been treated for a serious physical or mental illness(es) within the last three years?"

'Survivor'

When: 8 tonight

Where: CBS, Channel 13 (WJZ)

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