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‘Survivor’s’ name truly says it all

Times Staff Writer

Few network shows have done more, both directly and indirectly, to give every American his or her now requisite 15 minutes of fame -- and humiliation -- than “Survivor.”

The odd new show that began as a summertime crapshoot for CBS in 2000 was first ignored by critics, then quickly excoriated as a new cultural low. It was hard to believe it would enjoy even a fleeting moment of acclaim.

But the groundbreaking program, whose devilishly simple premise -- stranding a group of strangers in a remote location, holding a $1-million prize over their heads and making them eat bugs and stab each other in the back -- is now in its 15th season. Laugh if you want: It’s an astounding feat of longevity that highlights the program’s knack for outwitting, outplaying and outlasting the scores of copycat reality competitions it helped spawn.

And as the potentially devastating writer’s strike loomed, TV industry people were taking another look at the show and its steady, under-the-radar success. After all, the five-month writers strike in 1988 is often identified as a turning point for audiences, who began defecting from network fare in favor of then-upstart cable shows. It would be only fitting if “Survivor” led a new reality-show surge this time, if the strike were prolonged and networks had to lean harder than ever on unscripted shows.

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“ ‘Survivor’ is the gold standard of this genre,” said Mark Burnett, the show’s executive producer and the force behind a host of other reality-based network programming. “I don’t really like the term ‘reality.’ It’s a strange press invention. ‘Survivor’ is really a super documentary, in a way.”

Despite going up against celebrated scripted programming, “Survivor” is doing more than fine on television’s toughest night. In fact it’s thrashing its award-winning rivals. For the fifth consecutive week, “Survivor: China” won its Thursday night time period in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 demographic and in total viewers.

It did so against ABC’s “Ugly Betty,” whose Emmy-winning star America Ferrera has been a media darling since the show premiered to much fanfare last season. “Survivor” did even better against NBC’s smartly written and prized half-hour comedies “My Name Is Earl,” whose Jaime Pressly received an Emmy this year for outstanding supporting actress, and “30 Rock,” which captured this year’s Emmy for outstanding comedy series.

As Linda Holmes, a managing editor for the Web’s TelevisionWithoutPity.com, points out, the show looks like child’s play. “Everyone always thinks it’s so easy to duplicate a show like ‘Survivor,’ ” said Holmes. “They think all they need is to put a bunch of celebrities on an island or stick some people in a house. Well, 99% of time, it falls flat.”

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“There’s always been this eagerness to say reality shows are just trash, and I think people underestimate ‘Survivor’ because of that,” added Holmes. “It’s an extraordinarily well done show.”

Some core strengths

Like the rest of network television, the “Survivor” franchise has suffered a decline in overall audience, particularly when compared to the dizzying heights it reached in Season 1, when its finale drew 51 million viewers. Its weekly audience now hovers around the 14-million mark, a highly respectable number in today’s audience-fragmented entertainment marketplace. A location for a 16th season has been selected but not yet announced.

“A couple of moments there, I kind of thought we were near the end,” said Kelly Kahl, CBS’ scheduling chief. “But the show keeps surprising us. I can’t think of a scripted show that has this kind of staying power. If this were a new show and did these kind of numbers, it’d be on magazine covers.”

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While remaining a stalwart for CBS, “Survivor” has avoided the fate of many reality competitors over the years that may have burned brightly for a season or two, if at all, and then faded in the ratings or disappeared altogether. Like, say, Burnett’s other major reality show, NBC’s “The Apprentice,” which was in 2004 one of the hottest shows in television and now is listed as a mid-season replacement featuring an all-celebrity edition.

“One thing that didn’t help ‘The Apprentice’ was changing its time slot,” said Burnett who is also behind Fox’s surprise performer “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” and this summer’s reality flop “Pirate Master.” “If CBS kept shifting ‘Survivor’ around, I think you’d see a dramatic downturn there too.”

But “Survivor’s” vitality may have more to do with its core strengths than a stable time slot, which other than its premiere season has always been Thursday nights. From the start, the show’s production values have been praised even by its harshest critics. From a technical standpoint, the camera work and editing consistently have been first-rate.

And the show has shined most in perhaps the single most important category of any reality program: casting. From the first season, when truck driver Susan Hawk compared the finalists to “a snake and a rat” to this season’s poker-playing Jean-Robert Bellande, whose snoring and woman-eyeballing have endeared him to no one, “Survivor” has excelled at showcasing contestants people love to love and love to hate.

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“The casting has been terrific,” said Kahl. “And this is not to disparage Jeff [Probst, the show’s host], who is a critical guide for the viewer, but the contestants are the real stars of the show.”

Still, the show has had its missteps trying to keep itself fresh. Notably, last year’s “Survivor: Cook Islands,” for which contestants were segregated by race and ethnicity, caused an uproar. That idea was quietly dropped. Even in casting, the magic just hasn’t been there on occasion.

“For me, ‘Survivor: Fiji’ left me a little empty,” said Probst, the show’s only host, whose trademark dismissal line, “The Tribe has spoken,” is part of pop culture. “You have to have some good luck and hope the right people to root for are still there in the end. It doesn’t always happen.”

Good guys finish . . .

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Theories about the show’s appeal range from the inherent drama of watching contestants being drummed out of the “tribe” to witnessing the psychological dynamics of the workplace and the family.

“You can get only so far by conniving and lying, because the people you’ve lied and connived against have the power to award you the $1 million,” said Burnett. “So, it proves something about life. You can cheat and steal, but it only gets you so far. ‘Survivor’ is real karma. In the end, it’s a good lesson for kids, because being a good person is the key to winning.”

Just how long can “Survivor’s” torch burn?

“It’s very difficult to put a life span on something that has gone 15 seasons without people noticeably saying it isn’t any good anymore,” said Holmes, who writes recaps of the show. “I have no idea when it’s going to end. It wouldn’t surprise me if it were on 10 years from now.”

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martin.miller@latimes.com


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