"Survivor" and the End of Television
The finest piece of political rhetoric to be heard in this election year did not come from the mouth of a candidate for office, or from the pen of his highly paid speechwriter. Rather, it was delivered on a blisteringly hot night in a clearing on a South Seas island by a thirty-eight-year-old female truck driver from Wisconsin, speaking extemporaneously and directing her words at a woman she believed had betrayed her in their common quest for a prize of $1 million.
“I was your friend at the beginning of this,” said Susan Hawk to Kelly Wigglesworth:
At the time you were sweeter than me. I’m not a very openly nice person. I’m just frank, forward, and tell you the way it is. But . . . you’re very two-faced and manipulative to get where you’re at anywhere in fife. That’s why you fail all the time. . . .
What goes around comes around. It’s here. You will not get my vote. My vote will go to Richard. And I hope that it is the one vote that makes you lose the money. If not, so be it. I’ll shake your hand, and I’ll go on from here. But if I ever pass you along in life again and you were lying there dying of thirst, I would not give you a drink of water. I would let the vultures take you and do whatever they want with you. With no regrets. . . .
This island is pretty much full of only two things: snakes and rats. And in the end we have Richard the snake, who knowingly went after prey, and Kelly, who turned into the rat that ran around like rats do on the island, trying to run from the snake.
I feel we owe it to this island’s spirit that we have come to know to let it be in the end the way Mother Nature intended it to be. For the snake to eat the rat.
Susan Hawk’s invective blasted forth on national television before an audience of 40 million people. It erupted in the 13th and final episode of Survivor—the much-discussed game show featuring sixteen hitherto anonymous Americans who were flown to a deserted island, divided into teams, forced to compete in occasionally stomach-churning challenges of strength and nerve (like eating live earthworms), and then winnowed one at a time over the course of more than five weeks by a vote of the island-mates themselves until only one remained to collect the $1-million prize—not to mention a spanking new Plymouth Aztec.
What was so striking about Susan Hawk’s speech, and what induced gasps across the country, was its unvarnished biliousness. (The object of her scorn, Kelly Wiggles-worth, had voted against her the previous day when there were only three contestants remaining.) In some ways, her vituperative eloquence turned out to be the real climax of the show, even more so than the surprise victory of Richard Hatch, an openly gay Machiavellian fellow from Rhode Island who had spent a great deal of time cavorting in the nude and to whom much of America had taken a distinct dislike. But the two taken together—Hatch’s bad-guy victory, Hawk’s raw fury—hold the keys to understanding the extraordinary success of Survivor.
Whatever its faults, and they were manifold, Survivor became a sensation in part because it offered viewers a heady and original mix of fantasy fulfillment and honest emotion. The fantasy element was the free 39-day vacation to the South Seas, at the end of which lay the prospect of a pot of gold and a car. The honest emotions on display were all the churning feelings engendered by a summer at sleepaway camp—resentment, quick intimacy, disappointment, momentary kindness, the thrill of joining a secret clique. But it was the possibility of the unexpected—the surprise ending, the uncontrolled outburst, and, throughout, similar if less spectacular violations of the central tenets of popular culture—that set Survivor apart and made it such a success.
Not that it was without precedent. The “reality-television” genre, of which Survivor is by far the most popular example, had its origins nine years ago when the cable channel MTV premiered The Real World, a show that is still running. This program brings together seven college-age youngsters in a glamorous living space and follows them for four months “to see what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” What happens, for the most part, is some pretty lousy behavior—racial and sexual strife as well as heavy-duty flirting and a tendency toward spring-break-like exhibitionism—that usually leads to one member’s being expelled by the others. The only prize offered by The Real World is the chance to be on a television show that is edited like a music video and structured like a multicharacter situation comedy, with impossibly good-looking and colorful people who play to the camera like pros.
Survivor, based on a Dutch program, was in the same mold but more original. For one thing, the people on the show (with the exception of a very impressive seventy-two-year-old retired Navy SEAL named Rudy Boesch) were far more mundane in appearance and spirit. For another, they seemed to respond in authentic ways to the situation in which they had been placed. For television, that really was revolutionary. The question is, what does it signify?
Ever since it staged its blitzkrieg through American popular culture 50 years ago, television has been a medium notable for sheer unadulterated meretriciousness. It is a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, in-home reductio ad absurdum—only without a trace of irony. Television takes people—actors, newscasters, pundits, everybody else who flickers there—and shrinks them down to fit literally in a box usually no larger than two feet across. Indeed, everything on TV is shrunk to fit. Politics is reduced to the 30-second commercial and the four-second soundbite; drama and comedy are reduced to purposeless incident. Every 30-minute sitcom and 60-minute police drama is drenched in plot, but at the end of each week’s episode the central characters are left so unchanged by their experiences that they can go through the same gyrations a week later as if nothing had happened.
Americans have been around the television track for five decades now, and are thoroughly expert in its clichés and devices. No wonder, then, that over the past ten years there has occurred what a psychiatrist might call a withdrawal of affect. Americans still watch television, if not as much as they once did; but they are simply not as involved. The last prime-time hit to draw an audience of the size networks once expected of their most-watched shows was ER, and it premiered six years ago. Although some shows still have passionate followers, those followers number, for television, relatively few. Two decades ago, The X Files, a program about the supernatural, would have survived for only a matter of weeks before cancellation for lack of audience; but these days, driven by the enthusiasm of about 10 million viewers, it has lasted seven years on the Fox network.
Some of this decline is due to the cable-TV explosion, which has eroded the networks’ market share from 90 percent before 1980 to just about 50 percent today, and has altogether atomized the viewing audience. In 1970 it was a fair bet that almost everybody was watching the same shows. If there was a common culture in this large and heterogeneous country, it was the television culture: an Oregonian and a Vermonter who had never been more than 10 miles from home but suddenly found themselves standing next to each other on a line at Disneyland could at least conduct a passable conversation about the previous week’s episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Now there is no common television culture. A medium that once cast a large net and built an audience the way a presidential campaign builds a voter coalition—providing a daddy character for men, a mommy character for women, a maid character for the urban working class, and three children of various ages for the kids—is now driven by demographics. Networks are no longer broadcasters; instead, they are increasingly what marketers call “narrowcasters.” Programs like Sabrina, the Teenage Witch appeal exclusively to girls between the ages of six and eighteen; others appeal exclusively to blacks (the most-watched network program among blacks, The Parkers, ranks 120th among television programs overall); and so forth.
This is where Survivor appeared to break the mold. It was the first new TV show in years to generate something like a common cultural experience across the United States, and only one of two old-style broadcast hits to debut on network television since ER. The other is Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, a more conventional trivia/game show that unexpectedly revived the sagging fortunes of ABC just as Survivor brought new life to the moribund CBS.
Like Survivor, Millionaire offers the promise of a pot of gold. Again like Survivor, it also offers a glance at something real. Contestants have to answer multiple-choice questions; in the highly unlikely event that they get all sixteen right, they win. But, in contrast to other game shows, there is no clock—contestants have taken up to 40 minutes to answer a single question. And so they sit in what the host, Regis Philbin, calls the “hot seat,” worried and excited, trying to puzzle out an answer, while the sympathetic Philbin encourages them to take their time. The whole business can prove truly nerve-wracking, especially if the viewer at home happens to know the correct answer.
What, then, does it all mean? The rise of “reality television” has given pundits new cause to maunder over the nation’s moral health. Their exegeses, Gibbon-like in tone if not in style, suggest that we have developed a late-empire hunger for spectacles involving the humiliation and degradation of ordinary people. This alarming thesis, which applies as much to participants as to the audiences that watch them, was first advanced in the early 1980’s when the talk-show host Phil Donahue added a new spice to the pablum served up on daytime television by encouraging citizens to share their most intimate secrets in exchange for a free trip to Chicago and a night in a hotel.
Have Americans become so immodest that large numbers of them are willing to violate their own privacy for the temporary pleasure of appearing on television? Or, to put it another way, has the “thymotic urge”—the hunger for recognition—that Francis Fukuyama diagnosed as the existential condition at the “end of history” so infiltrated the American soul that we have become willing to submit ourselves to the voyeuristic fetishes of others?
Before we collapse into an anxious heap awaiting the second Flood, however, we would do well to remember that 270 million people live in the United States. If you add up those who have applied to appear on Survivor and other such shows and those willing to appear on daytime talk shows, the actual or potential participants in “reality television” number around 50,000. That is one-fiftieth of 1 percent of the population.
As for viewers, here too the picture is at least somewhat more complicated than the pundits allow. Reality television offers a series of temptations simultaneously repellent and irresistible. Like highway rubbernecking—wherein everybody slows down in hopes of glimpsing a mangled car or body—reality TV offers us the chance to see human wreckage and to feel superior to the people involved in it or victimized by it. But it also gives us a chance to admire people when they do well or soar above their circumstances, as the contestants on Survivor did every day by toughing it out under difficult conditions. It is not so easy to separate the illicit pleasures of voyeurism—the secretly hoped-for injury—from the higher pleasures of admiration. In its own way, what is on offer in reality television resembles the combination of elements that has provided sports fans with compelling entertainment for millennia, minus the rules.
America is not coming to an end as a result of Survivor. But neither does the show signify something truly new, a breakthrough departure; the hour is too late for that. Rather, it represents the extreme, logical conclusion of the first era of the television age.