Smell that? It’s another round of Mark Burnett-produced “reality”—this time billed as Survivor: Africa (CBS; debuts Thursday, Oct. 11), as if you didn’t know. Sixteen more young, pretty people (and a couple of token non-pretty, pushing-50 “oldsters,” plus one who’s 57!), stuck in the wild of Kenya, forming alliances, battling bugs, facing “challenges,” whining about alliances and bugs and challenges, etc., for 14 mind-numbing weeks.
Christ, I don’t think I can take it.
Experts who keep track of these things don’t believe the American viewing public will be so willing to take it these days, either. Last month’s terrorist attacks and the ensuing 24-hour TV coverage put “reality TV” into perspective, not to mention Burnett’s admission that he’d actually staged and re-shot scenes in the previous two Survivor outings. If more than eight people had even seen it, I’d throw in UPN’s Manhunt as another example of manipulated “reality.” But why bother? This stuff isn’t “real.” It’s just cheap.
“When Survivor debuted it was a novelty, it was a totally different format,” one CBS exec said recently, remaining anonymous in fear of voiding his contract with Satan, er, Viacom. “And then the clones started coming in. Now, every time you turn on the TV there’s another here, some good, some not so good. So, there might be burnout—even if nothing had happened on Sept. 11.”
Are terrorism-TV saturation and reality-TV burnout to blame for the fact that no one watched NBC’s Lost or ABC’s The Mole during the last couple of weeks (or even knew they were on)? Does petty backstabbing between “contestants” seem stupid now in the face of thousands of real dead countrymen and an impending war? Is Survivor: Africa as doomed as CBS secretly fears because a dazed America now craves escapism over “realism”? Maybe, but I’m sticking with the theory I’ve held ever since Burnett’s little dog-and-pony show premiered last year: Survivor sucks, and it’s about damned time everyone else wised up to it.
A downtrend in viewership (fancy showbiz talk for “fewer suckers be watchin’”) between Survivor I and Survivor II was only the beginning; as the anonymous CBS suit said, the clones began rolling in and diluting the novelty value. Survivor-inspired shows like VH1’s Bands on the Run and MTV’s Tough Enough rose above the stink because they had a point: a record deal for an unknown rock band and a World Wrestling Federation contract for a pair of potential rasslin’ superstars. But what’s the Survivor prize? A million bucks, a crappy Pontiac Aztek SUV and five minutes of fame that deteriorates into 10 minutes of milking every last ounce of pseudo-celebrity on strong-armed corporate siblings all the way from The Early Show to Entertainment Tonight? Honey, puh-leez.
But wait, it gets worse: Survivor I winner Richard Hatch became a media whore and boyfriend-beater before descending to the lowest circle of Celebrity Hell, hosting morning drive-time radio in Boston. Survivor II victor … uh, what’s her name? … Tina Wesson kept a thankfully lower profile and now hocks dairy products in Tennessee. Talk about diminishing returns—what does the future winner of Survivor III have to look forward to? Living in an Aztek under a Portland viaduct with a pair of skanks from Temptation Island and Love Cruise? Hey, there are worse ways to go: The entire cast of Big Brother 2 was sold to a popular dog food manufacturer as “tasty meat byproducts—now with extra Bunky!”
Speaking of reality TV’s gamy offshoot, reality-with-possibility-of-booty-action TV, Elimidate Deluxe (The WB; debuts Thursday, Oct. 11) is the new show that answers the burning question, “What if The WB put a cheesy dating show rip-off of Blind Date, Chains of Love and, oddly enough, a syndicated crapfest simply called Elimidate, up against the premiere of Survivor: Africa and the universe didn’t collapse under the sheer weight of its own idiocy?”
Yes, if you thought Shipmates was the nadir of “romance” reality TV, the Frog Net’s dee-luxe version of the week-nightly Elimidate syndie proudly retorts, “Ha! We’ll show you nadir … and why did that tree-hugger ruin the election for Al Gore, anyway?” The concept: One guy/gal goes on a simultaneous date with four would-be suitors in an exotic locale (Costa Rica, Maui, New Orleans—you know, wherever there’s a good Hooters), cutting three loose during the course of the show until he/she winds up with the future love/plaintiff of his/her wonderful life/out-of-court settlement. Getting misty-eyed for Studs, aren’t you?
The next logical (!) step in reality TV evolution? Stay tuned for the hot new syndicated show Grudge Sex, wherein disgruntled office drones narrow the field to one lucky/unlucky boss/co-worker, hosted by whomever wins Survivor III.