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(21 May 2006)

I have to admit that I was one of those people completely taken up with the Survivor phenomenon last summer (and we all either know these people or actually are them). I could give a number of explanations to justify this fascination, but I suspect the main reason for my near-religious devotion to the show has to do with NBC’s failure to get me to watch summer reruns with its “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you” campaign. Survivor was new and I had a lot of time on my hands.


In January, when the Australian sequel began, I wasn’t quite as taken with the show. The cultural hubbub had died down significantly and the series lost some of its novelty. What I did notice was that I began to take perverse pleasure in paying more attention to the production than to the drama unfolding before me. I started to wonder: “Just how is it they got that shot of a grasshopper on a tree in front of Colby as he aimlessly searches the ground around him for insect fish-bait? You’d think he’d notice the camera focusing on something other than him.” Or, “Are there always helicopters flying overhead to capture the almost-weekly shots from above?” And, “Is that really someone lurking around with a night vision camera to capture shots of Colby snoring?”


So it’s no surprise to me that producer Mark Burnett has recently admitted that he restaged several moments in the series. Of course, he claims that none of the reenactments were vital to the show’s outcome. It was all just window dressing to pump up the drama. Burnett claims that this tinkering doesn’t diminish Survivor‘s authenticity, but the media has covered this revelation as if it’s on the verge of blowing apart the whole notion of Reality TV. To be honest, this confession about what really goes into making Reality TV doesn’t bother me one bit because I honestly think these shows are so far removed from any sense of the term “reality” that tweaking here and there doesn’t change things much. If Burnett had never touched up a single scene in Survivor—thus living up to the expectations of Reality TV purists—the show would still be as divorced from actual life as I’ve always found it.


When the “reality” craze started up with Survivor‘s success last summer, controversy centered around whether it was ethical to film and package real-life situations for mass consumption. Critics described the show as a vulgar and demeaning vehicle for advertising dollars. At the time, many failed to mention that this wasn’t particularly new: Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray’s The Real World had already been on MTV for nearly a decade and, two decades before that, PBS got into the action with its own portrait of daily life, An American Family. Sure, Survivor‘s new game show twist did emphasize the monetary aspects of the show, but those other forerunners were just as market-driven. Previous reality-based series wanted to drum up viewers for their networks by putting “reality” on display just as eagerly as Survivor has done for CBS. Survivor has added a new dimension to the mix, but the fundamental strategy for acquiring Nielsen ratings is the same.


What does disturb me about this whole phenomenon is not that “reality” is being packaged for a mass audience, but that it’s being referred to as “reality” at all. When have seven strangers ever been brought together in the real world to live in a wildly expensive house to see what would happen when people stop being polite and all the rest of it? Yes, the fact that the living conditions were over-the-top indicates that Bunim and Murray were at least somewhat conscious of the unreality of the situation, but they did claim that the housemates’ reactions to each other were more authentic than what we’ve seen on weekly sitcoms.


For Burnett’s own series, how is surviving off rice for forty days only to return to the extravagantly large dinner portions Americans are accustomed to in the remotest sense real? Once again, Burnett chooses a highly unlikely situation within which to place his contestants, but he’s still arguing that his “characters”’ reactions to unreal situations are “real.” Can we honestly say that people act “authentically” when they’re placed in extreme (good or bad) situations and then are constantly followed by cameras? (Albert Brooks got at this last issue most effectively in his mockumentary, Real Life—his own reaction to PBS’s An American Family—when he showed the ways in which 24-hour camera presence could completely disrupt “real life.”)


None of these shows have ever been about reality. I prefer to think of them more as improvisational TV. The producers get a group of exhibitionists (because, let’s face it, you have to be something of an extrovert to want to go through with all of this) together to create their own drama. And the sense is that the more over-the-top you are, the likelier a chance you’ll have of scoring a job in the entertainment industry once your tour of duty is up. Seen from this perspective, Survivor 2 was not much more than a 6-week audition tape. A bit grueling, if you ask me, but that’s what many people are willing to endure in the quest for celebrity. (And what are we to make of the fact that even celebrities want to be celebrities? Recent Academy Award nominee Kate Hudson stood in line for 3 hours recently to audition for Survivor 3. The producers talked her out of line but are now considering the possibility of a Celebrity Survivor, where I guess we’ll get to see Ray Romano and Rosie O’Donnell bicker around the campfire about whose turn it is to gut the fish.)


Survivor is not all that different from much of the contrived TV we slug through week after week. It’s a bit more interesting because it’s a bit more unpredictable. But the fact that Mark Burnett feels the need to stage peripheral moments to spruce up the production value comes as no real surprise. What does amaze me is that we continue to insist on holding the show up to some higher standard for authenticity. Instead of endlessly debating the ethics of Reality TV, what we should be worrying about is the fantasy we insist on perpetuating that Survivor is reality at all.

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