Who wants to be a smelly, rat-eating castaway? If the overnight Nielsen ratings for Wednesday’s premiere of “Survivor” are an indication, Regis might want to think about going native — in a hurry.
The debut of CBS’s desert-island reality show beat a hastily scheduled bonus episode of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” by a hefty 63 percent margin in the key 18-to-34-year-old viewer demographic. It was the highest rating in that demographic for a CBS Wednesday 8 p.m. show in eight years. And ABC had to settle for a disappointing first-place tie with CBS for the night in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic as well. Time for a lifeline? (In case you missed it, CBS is repeating the “Survivor” premiere episode Saturday at 10 p.m.)
“Survivor,” which has been hyped ad nauseam for months, is based on a popular Swedish TV show (not, alas, on “Gilligan’s Island”). Two eight-person teams are marooned for 39 days on Pulau Tiga, a small uninhabited island off Borneo in the South China Sea, where they compete in a survival of the fittest. The contestants, average people like you and me (hah!) ranging in age from 22 to 72, have to work together to forage for food (rats, fish), build shelter and make fire, but they must also — and here’s the sadistic part — stab each other in the back, because every three days, one person gets voted out of the tribe. When there are only two survivors left, the seven most recent castoffs return to vote one of them out. The last survivor wins $1 million.
Wednesday’s premiere (heavily sponsored by the Army and Dr. Scholl’s) introduced us to the castaways, who were plucked from thousands of applicants. The Tagi Team included two blowhards (72-year-old former Navy SEAL Rudy and 38-year-old corporate trainer Richard), bitchy 27-year-old lawyer Stacey (who has personality issues with Rudy), 38-year-old self-described “redneck” truck driver Susan, 23-year-old Bible-toting Dirk, and 62-year-old ukelele-strumming cancer survivor Sonja. For the Pagong Team, we have cantankerous 64-year-old elder statesmen B.B., 38-year-old mother of two, part-time preschool teacher and former Air Force survival instructor Gretchen (I’ve got my money on her), four more pretty young white women and men in their 20s, and the only two African-Americans on the show, 30-year-old athletic instructor Gervase and 28-year-old biologist Ramona.
This brings me to the part I don’t understand. Look, I know there are some of you out there who just adore reality stuff like this, and “The Real World.” But there’s nothing “real” about it! The contestants on “Survivor” sought out this gig; they didn’t stumble into the spotlight like some hapless schmuck being arrested in his underwear on “Cops.” The people on “Survivor” and “The Real World” are as exhibitionistic as any professional actors, except without the Screen Actors Guild membership cards. I mean, everything about the makeup of the teams screams of manipulation. Why are all those attractive single people thrown together, if not to create the potential for sparks? Why are Rudy and Richard, two guys with similar combustible personalities, on the same team, if not to increase the potential for screaming matches and possible fistfights? (Richard — last name Hatch — is the guy who was in the news recently for being charged with child abuse after returning home from his adventure; he allegedly made his 9-year-old overweight son run six miles at 4:30 a.m. as punishment for overeating.)
When the president of CBS TV, Leslie Moonves, tells reporters that he participated in the casting of “Survivor,” helping choose the final 16 contestants, and gets all giddy describing the show’s “voyeuristic appeal,” then you can bet, my friends, that this is not “reality,” but some winking faux version of it. Still, I’m sure that won’t stop “Survivor” from becoming this summer’s national obsession and then, who knows, maybe next year’s sweeps programming main event. I can see the celebrity edition of “Survivor” now: Bobby Knight, Oprah Winfrey and the cast of “Friends” vs. Martha Stewart, the Dixie Chicks, Jerry, George, Kramer and Shaquille O’Neal.
In its ritualistic banishing of the weaklings from the tribe, “Survivor” has the high “humiliate the loser” quotient American viewers love. At the same time, the show gets at some larger truth about our corporate society, where total loyalty and teamwork is demanded but seldom rewarded. (Prediction: Richard the corporate trainer will soon go into business leading “Survivor”-style “team-building” exercises for companies whose CEOs have tired of the usual enforced whitewater-rafting expeditions.) And “Survivor” both attracts and repels in the way it mirrors the generational conflicts and pecking order of power in American society. Who was the first castaway deemed useless and expendable and voted off the island by fellow team members? Yep, you’re right. The old woman. They’ve booted Mrs. Howell!