Outwit, outplay, outlast, indeed

When Survivor debuted this past summer, the executives over at CBS were hurting for a hit. The Eye network was lagging behind the other two “Big Three” (ABC and NBC) in overall viewers, and was getting a significant drumming from FOX and even the WB in the younger demographics that advertisers want to reach. When I heard about Survivor, I knew I’d watch, but I didn’t know that I’d become obsessed. I remember thinking that as long as it was over early enough for me to go out, I’d give it a shot. Then Survivor hit and CBS was suddenly sitting pretty _ reality television programming had gone mainstream, and my life would never be the same.

Most people think MTV’s The Real World was the first coming of modern reality TV (and by modern I’m concentrating on the last decade or so), but that isn’t entirely accurate. Significantly before Puck was eating Pedro’s peanut butter or Amaya’s “twins” hit the scene, Americans were watching what could be considered reality TV’s Adam and Eve: the classic game show and the talk show. I use the word “classic” to differentiate shows like The Price is Right and Card Sharks from Survivor. Although the last is frequently called a game show, it most definitely is not. In his best-selling companion book to the show, Survivor’s executive producer, Mark Burnett calls it an “adventure show” and “two parts adventure contest and eight parts surviving the peer group,” but never a game show.

A classic game show is one like those I just mentioned. Judy from Milwaukee and Jeffrey from Fort Lee would be competing for cars, tacky furniture, or the nominal cash prize. The beauty of Judy and Jeffrey was that they were real people. They could be our neighbors, our relatives, or, most enticingly, they could be us. Imagine that! But sadly, in most cases, they weren’t us. Try as we might, most of us never got called onstage at The Price Is Right or never made it through to the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? hotline.

So what did we do? We went on Ricki. And Montell. And Jerry. And if we were really classy we’d even go on Oprah. Talk shows were like mini-reality series in one-episode bursts. In essence, talk shows are like The Real World with all the boring parts cut out. All that’s left are the incredibly entertaining fights (Kevin calls Julie [NYC] a racist! Stephen slaps Irene!). We were again on TV, but it was only our seamy underbelly _ the nastiest, juiciest bits ready for primetime. How wonderful would it be to watch The Real World without the worry of having to sit through Julie (New Orleans) playing her guitar?

Unfortunately, talk shows and game shows only captured one part of the television public’s fancy. It’s true that we enjoy watching people like ourselves on TV (which is why Rosanne did so well), but that sometimes isn’t enough. Normal people get a kick out of fantasy. From Xena and Star Trek to Friends (how do they afford those apartments?), the general public likes to leave the dull normalcy of their lives behind occasionally. What would happen if someone were able to combine the “real people” concept with the “fantasy” scenarios? You would have reality TV.

People want to see themselves on TV, but they want to see themselves kicking ass or living it up. This desire was finally quenched with the debut of The Real World. The Bunim-Murray Productions show broke ground by placing seven strangers in a beautiful house and videotaping the results. Soon, Bunim-Murray decided to spice up the formula and created Road Rules, a sort of Real World with parachutes. Currently taping its tenth anniversary season in New York City, The Real World is only getting stronger with every passing year. In fact, MTV recently ordered, for the first time, not just one but two seasons of The Real World for this year. As soon as Real World 10 wraps, Bunim-Murray will begin its first ever summer production.

I want to see myself on TV kicking ass or living it up. That’s why I applied to the Real World three times. My latest submission probably won’t matter since the post office screwed up and delivered my overnight package a week late. It’s a shame too, because I like to think that this, my third attempt at becoming one of the seven strangers, was rather strong. No, I didn’t do anything stupid for my videotape. I just talked. But I did use props. The third time was going to be the charm. It was going to be the solution to my lack of employment right now. What better way to follow up college than spending June to October of this year filming The Real World? But let’s not dwell.

Survivor was born to be in the tradition of The Real World, but it was going to up the ante by jumping onto network television. History shows that cable, the home of MTV, has always been able to push the envelope when it comes to programming, but the networks pretty much stay on the straight and narrow. Suddenly, all this was altered. Debuted in the middle of rerun-heavy summertime, Survivor challenged network television conventions and scored quite the coup. The travails of Richard, Sue, Colleen (oh-so-cute!), and the rest of the castaways made for fascinating television. So fascinating that it inspired me, the consummate indoor boy, to want to be abandoned in the wilds of Australia for Survivor 2. I went to the website, downloaded the eight-page application, and went to work.

They asked questions ranging from “If you could hold any political office, what would it be and why?” to “What would be the craziest, wildest thing you would do for a million dollars?” My answer to the latter was: “I would gladly allow myself to be strapped to a large banner that would be dragged behind a biplane flying up and down the Jersey shore on a hot summer’s day wearing nothing but a hot pink tutu (no leotard), black, patent leather platform sneakers, and one of those crowns from Medieval Times (preferably green).” I’d like to think that my application was imaginative, witty, and interesting.

Unfortunately, my accompanying video was none of these things. Even with all my Real World video experience, my Survivor tape totally sucked. The problem was that I was used to the generous ten minutes that Bunim-Murray allow for the Real World tapes. Survivor’s producers allow only three minutes. What the hell am I supposed to do with three minutes? The sad truth is that I didn’t do much. This proved to be problematic as the video is probably used for pre-screening for the application. In other words, if your video sucks, they’re not even going to read your questionnaire. That’s why my video for Survivor 3 is going to kick ass.

Survivor opened the floodgates for a glut of reality programming. In the last few months, FOX began airing the mind-blowingly inappropriate Temptation Island while ABC jumped aboard the reality bandwagon with its pseudo-suspenseful (and mostly crappy) The Mole. In addition, MTV just showed reruns of Bunim-Murray’s other big reality show, Making The Band, while the WB is showing their female version, Pop Stars. Meanwhile, the overworked crew over at Bunim-Murray is also putting together a Temptation Island-esque show that will take place on a singles cruise. Still, my money is on CBS, which debuted Survivor 2: The Australian Outback after the Super Bowl and managed to hang on to 78% of that horrible, sports telecast audience. Since then, the first broadcast, Survivor 2 has gone on to win its timeslot against NBC’s juggernaut Friends every single week. I can’t imagine how high Survivor 3‘s ratings are going to be when word gets out that I’ll be on the show.