Archive for Monday, June 26, 2000

TV’s survival of the ratings

Manipulated lives more thrilling than real life

June 26, 2000


— It isn't the barbecued rat feast that got to me, although I am grateful to the all-purpose food critic who declared, "It tastes like chicken." Thanks for the tip.

Nor am I hooked by the suspense of finding out who gets booted off the island each Wednesday. It doesn't take a psych major or a video editor to make a good guess about who'll get voted out of the tribe next.

Ellen Goodman

In truth, theres a lot more pseudo than survivor in this summer series.

For that matter it isn't even the competitive setup, smarmy as it is, that has me hooked on "Survivor." I mean, check the rules of this "game show": Each of the 16 participants is supposed to prove devotion to the well-being of the tribe in order to win the entire million bucks for his or herself? What a contradictory game this is. Hello, cutthroats.

What actually fascinates me about the runaway hit and castaway hype is the fascination itself. This merger of "Lord of the Flies" and "Gilligan's Island" posed a question at the outset that utterly engaged the attention of younger viewers: "Do you have what it takes?"

In truth, there's a lot more pseudo than survivor in this summer series. More fantasy than reality. For all the ominous soundtracks, the intermittent images of dangerous snakes, this carefully chosen and camera-ready cast came onto the island set with enough food to satisfy most of the world's daily diets and the promise of a Medivac lift in case reality actually bites.

But more than 20 million Americans are tuning to a show that rescued CBS off the deserted island of elder audiences. The appeal of this stress-test is greatest among a young generation of voyeur-viewers. They are now watching the competing tribes, Pagongs and Tagis, exist for 39 days without takeout or TV.

What accounts for this age appeal? Our elders have been through the real thing. Pseudo survival may be less entertaining to those who made it through The Depression or World War II. Pulau Tiga is not Iwo Jima. And this show will never be syndicated in Bosnia.

But something curious has happened to those younger Americans who have not in fact honed their survival skills and have only "starved" between lunch and dinner. These are the folks who choose to go Outward Bound. They've built up the popularity of extreme sports, taken to mountain climbing with cell phones created safer copycats of the life tests from which most have in fact been sheltered.

How else do we explain the post-Cold War fascination that will produce "The Mole" this year? On this show, each televised team will include its own saboteur. Peacetime paranoia?

What about "Big Brother," a planned program that will record the lives of 10 people locked together in a house for 90 days? Would we have found Anne Frank's sequestered family life so amusing? Lacking real adversity do we make it up? That's entertainment?

Even the "Masterpiece Theater" crowd has its own PBS variation on a theme as it films the Bowler family living in "The 1900 House." They signed on this show to drop out of one century for an earlier one. It is an experiment in technological time-travel for the family except for the cameramen.

In the 1970s, PBS showed the Loud family at home in the ordinary daily stress of living. In 2000, we have the Bowlers testing their dependence on today's technology. We watch it to see if they and we can pass the Victorian test of cold water and hard labor.

"The whole experiment" says Joyce Bowler, "has just taken me and shaken me to the core of my being." The Bowlers, like Ramona, the most recent reject of the tribe, are shaken to their core by the lack of hot water. "Do you have what it takes?" On the South Seas island, the producers talk about "crushing defeats" and "dangerous hikes," but in this series the prizes are waterproof matches and the sponsors are the Army and Dr. Scholl's, Budweiser and Nike.

I don't know if the younger generation is attracted to this test because they fear weakness. Maybe the attraction to survival lite, to extreme sports, to vicarious adventure, to pushing the limits, has grown out of some latent desire to be tested in life. Even when the test is, perversely, entertainment.

But I can't help thinking about survival. Our elders sat around the radio together listening to the voice of Roosevelt or Churchill wondering which countries and peoples would survive. Now their grandchildren sit in front of the television set: the survivor is now a millionaire.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is

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