Reality Television (Survivor)
7 Dec 2010
What Makes Reality Television Survive? In the year 1992 a new idea was introduced to America and it was called reality television. MTV produced a show called, The Real World that had seven strangers living in a house together and had everything they did filmed. After many failed attempts at trying to make this reality trend catch on, CBS launched Survivor, which pioneered the way for all reality shows to follow in the next decade. It was a show about people battling it out in two separate tribes to their wits end in the jungle and it spread like wildfire across America. Survivor premiere debuted to 28 million viewers and is still on today, a decade and 21 seasons later (McCraley). Reality television did not have the power to tip and become an epidemic until producers began to use clever marketing strategies to bring Survivor to the mass of America. It has been almost twenty years since MTV first attempted to air The Real World with hopes of creating a new type of television America would love. First broadcasted in 1992 it is now the longest running show in MTV’s history and is currently on its twenty-fifth season. It is credited with being the first reality television show aired but it was not the first to grasp America and change the way we watch television. Reality television’s first big tipping point came the night Survivor premiered in May of 2000 on CBS and producers were beyond ecstatic when receiving the numbers the next day of viewers that tuned in (Metz par. 1). An epidemic had begun and it was here to stay. The American Survivor was derived from the Swedish version of the same show but only the first season of America’s Survivor had the same format. Throughout the seasons the producers have added new twists, turns, and contests. The United States version of Survivor is produced by Mark Burnett and hosted by Jeff Probst (Metz par. 1). This one single show caught the eyes of millions of Americans and since then all of our basic channels have been flooded with what we call ‘reality’ television. The format and concepts have changed drastically but there still seems to be a demand for reality television so producers will continue to come up with new ideas until America no longer seems to show interest.
Reality television has become a constant target for controversy and complaints but seems to be one of those things we either love to hate or hate to love. Reality television that used to just be fun competition has turned into pregnant teenagers, partying Guidos, rich kids in Los Angeles or eight roommates all sleeping with each other in one house. Each one of these presents obvious controversy for the public eye but the producers do this for a reason. If there is nothing to talk about then no one will talk. The more buzz a producer can build about their show the more people will want to watch (King par. 2). Reality television producers seem to have a certain niche for stirring up as much debate and controversy as they can.
As ridiculous as reality television shows have recently become with at least 6 different ones all involving competition of baking the perfect cake, Americans are what propel this industry. We continually watch them and keep their ratings up so they are beginning to take over other shows such as sitcoms and dramas. Some reality television shows are even getting signed for more seasons than non-reality shows are receiving. Survivor and The Real World being prime examples, both having over twenty seasons of airtime (Metz par. 1). It is not a question of whether or not reality television is or is not an epidemic, it is a question of how did Survivor manage to turn this industry around and make everyone fall in love with it.
The gist of Survivor goes a little something like this; the show starts with sixteen average Americans who are brought to a remote island to fend for themselves. The island is usually a very unforgiving place with no modern conveniences. The sixteen individuals are divided into two teams. Every few days, one of the teams gathers at a tribal council and votes someone off the island. You can gain immunity by winning the challenges, which are very fun and interesting to watch. Once a total of six people remain the tribes merge. After this, it is every person for him or herself. The last Survivor at the end wins one million dollars (Charkow). It is all about who will make just the right alliances and just the right enemies in order to take home the money.
Over the past years connecting with people on common interests has become an important aspect of living. Reality TV allows us to do just that; we can watch a show Monday night and then have something to talk about the next day at work or school. We can have a common interest with someone without really having to like the same things. Curiosity also plays a role in our obsession with this trend, viewers will imagine themselves in these certain situations and think how they would react but the difference is the viewers get to watch from afar and not have any consequences for what they might choose (Hotchkiss par. 2). Reality television has completely changed the entertainment industry in that it creates a fun way to follow these participants and since they are real people with real conflicts their lives matter to us. This seems to be one reason surrounding why reality television has become so captivating for America and just why it is undeniably here to stay for the long haul. So what exactly did Survivor have that managed to captivate America and keep us here? Unpredictability with relatability (Crum). Each week there were these normal human beings performing risky tasks unknowing if they were going to be sent home the following week. Americans began to watch, found their favorite contestants, and had to stay to make sure they made it until the end. Survivor producers also knew when creating this show the factor of relatability would play a major role. By taking normal human beings that are not trained actors, viewers begin to realize they may personally know one of the contestants or at least know them through the six degrees of separation. Even if they do not somehow know a contestant there is always one that they can relate to and connect with. When a viewer has a personal connection in a show it makes them want to invest more and they are willing to dedicate an hour of their time each week to tune in and see how their favorites are doing (Yazbek). Producers and casting directors thrived off of this concept of relatability. Each and every contestant is different in some way that producers believe will reach a vast majority of viewers in America. If there is a contestant representing each main demographic there is at least one person for almost everyone to connect with and want to root for. Once the viewers lock in their favorites they religiously watch Survivor in order to check up and make sure their contestant is still in and surviving. This is what helped Survivor manage to tip the reality trend (McCraley). The casting directors and producers knew exactly what to look for in the contestants they choose and they chose perfectly. America originally tuned in for Survivor’s first premiere because they did not know what to expect from these ordinary people getting their own television show and Survivor’s marketing team created a hype that was able to draw in over 28 million viewers for the first time (Metz par. 1).
Dr. Kathleen King, who is a motivational keynote speaker, believes that Survivor uses their contestants as characters as a marketing strategy. If situations can't be resolved in a timely manner, people grow frustrated and bored with them. Our brain starts telling us, through our emotions, that it is time to move on. For a show to be successful, it has to introduce a parade of situations, just like real life would. So, how does a show keep us engaged in between situations? What keeps us tuned in? The characters . Characters are what we connect to. Characters engage us at a completely different level than situations. Situations are an intellectual challenge. Characters create emotional bonds. We care what happens to them (King). This caring, this connection, provides the emotional overtones that keep the situations of Survivor consistently interesting.
Americans instantly fell in love with this nail-biting reality show as soon as it made its debut. From the get-go producers created characters that they knew America would fall in love with, each for different reasons. Although Survivor is not scripted certain teams are paired together and certain scenes may be edited in hopes of causing a stir with viewers. Producers create good and bad controversy to evoke emotions from their viewers. Once you are able to pull at the heartstrings of your viewers and have them emotionally involved with your characters you can create a true bond (Morrison par. 3). Survivor made viewers fall in love with certain characters so when they were backstabbed or voted off they felt emotions for them. They would continue to watch so they knew exactly how their season would end and who took the winning spot of someone they wished would have won or stuck with their favorites until they would win (Hotchkiss par. 2). This level of emotional connection created a stickiness factor that helped Survivor stay with its viewers. One more reason Survivor has lasted so long and continually intrigued viewers is they way it is shot. A reality show's segment producers or story editors usually assemble storyboards and shooting scripts, which are important tools for shaping the direction of the show. In the TV sitcom and drama world, these people would be known as writers. Unlike writers, the Writers Guild of America does generally not recognize them and so they are not union employees. This distinction could be seen as a disservice to the segment producers and story editors, but it benefits the show in that it lowers production costs and it helps preserve the idea that the shows are real and unscripted. It also allows reality shows to keep on rolling when a writer strike hits, like it did in fall 2007. Many reality show staffers have contested the distinction in ongoing court cases since 2005 (Poniewozik par. 2).
Reality shows typically do not have scripts, but there is often a shooting script or an outline that details aspects of an episode or part of the show. For example, it can set up a specific challenge for the contestants on Survivor. A shooting script could also create conflict between some of the participants by pairing specific people as roommates or partners. Producers create shooting scripts with viewers in mind thinking about what they might like to see and what would make them stay tuned. In extreme cases, a shooting script might include a storyboard, which is a visual representation of the concept that physically illustrates what will occur in a scene (Metz par. 2). Ultimately, reality producers and editors have a lot of control over what happens on the show, just by the sheer fact that they have put the people together in certain situations, and they are controlling what footage gets aired and what does not. If Survivor were just a 24/7 camera on contestants living in the jungle viewers would get bored. Producers pick and choose the best material and content to air because obviously America does not want to watch strangers sleeping or eating their food, they want to see conflict, emotion, and turmoil. If it were not for Survivor we would never know if some other show would have had the power to tip the reality television trend. Thanks to Survivor, its stickiness factor, and its relatability we will never have to worry about that. Survivor paved the way for the majority of America’s favorite television shows we watch today and opened doors for a new format of television programming. There is no way to tell how long reality television is here to stay but at the rate it is going, it seems like it will be putting up a fight until America stops watching. After all, reality television would not have already lasted this long if it wasn’t a survivor.