Reality may overshadow reality series

Television: `Survivor' returns amid questions about the future of shows that only pretend to be real.

October 11, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Does anyone care about a bunch of self-absorbed poseurs playing a made-for-TV game in Africa given the times in which Americans now live?

That's the question facing CBS as it debuts Survivor: Africa tonight, the third installment of the mega-hit Survivor franchise from executive producer Mark Burnett. Given what happened Sept. 11, the questions that matter to us are not who's going to eat rats, kill a pig, go naked or betray a fellow contestant to win $1 million.

For the record, there are 16 contestants with an average age of 35 playing the game on the Shaba National Reserve in Kenya. It's hot, it's dusty, the water's impossible to drink and the animals are scary.

So what? With this Survivor , the audience matters more than the players. For the past month, social observers have wondered if the unimaginable reality of the terrorist attacks on the United States have changed the audience. Will "reality" shows like Survivor that once seemed so engaging to viewers now be seen as irrelevant?

"No. I think it is the same audience," Burnett said during a conference call last week. "Quite frankly, I think, if anything, really, really good entertainment is desperately needed. And Survivor has a good following. Look, we're human beings. We're entitled to have a bit of escapism. There's only so much 24-hours news we can watch."

Jeff Probst, the host of the series, followed the company line in another conference call last week.

"I think television has always been, at its best, nothing more than escapism," he said. "And, in the case of Survivor, it's at least a pleasant, entertaining distraction. I don't think anyone is confusing the `reality television' world with the reality that our country's in and the world is going through. You'd have to be an idiot."

Preliminary ratings data indicates a loss of interest in reality TV. For example, the only programs other than sitcoms and dramas to make last week's Top 20 were Monday Night Football and Dateline. There was no Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Weakest Link.

But, there's always a dip in audiences for nonfiction TV when sitcoms and dramas debut in the fall. Five years ago, the New York Times pronounced the newsmagazine genre dead, after misreading a temporary decline caused by viewer sampling of new programs.

Industry opinion seems split from network to network, depending upon how heavily invested each is in such programming. According to the Hollywood Reporter, network executives discussed that issue at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society's annual luncheon last week.

Echoing Probst and Burnett, CBS programming vice president Kerry Kahl said that describing shows like Survivor as "reality" television is misleading. "I think they're escapist, and that's what people are looking for right now," Kahl said.

NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker predicted: "The good unscripted shows will endure." NBC rode Fear Factor and Weakest Link to big wins over the summer.

But Lloyd Braun, co-chairman of the ABC Entertainment Group, said: "I'm not so sure the audience is going to be as accepting of these shows as they were in the past." Of the Big Three networks, ABC has the fewest big-ticket "reality" programs in its fall lineup.

"The pettiness and interpersonal dynamics of people are one of the really interesting parts of these shows," Braun said. But you have to wonder if, after the events of Sept. 11, people will look at that now and say, `Please, we don't care.'

Survivor: Africa premieres at 8 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).

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