August 24, 2000
MTV's Brian Graden and NewsHour essayist Roger Rosenblatt look at the phenomenon over CBS's popular "Survivor" program.
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TERENCE SMITH: An estimated 51 million Americans tuned in last night to the two-hour finale of "Survivor," this summer's television phenomenon. The contrived reality show drew the second-largest television audience of the year, second only to the Super Bowl. At the end, the desert island castaways awarded the $1 million grand prize to the sole survivor, Richard Hatch, a 39- year-old corporate trainer.
JEFF PROBST, "Survivor" Host: The winner of the first "survivor" competition is... Rich.
SPOKESMAN: Congratulations, Rich. Congratulations. Kelly, congratulations.
|A panel discussion|
TERENCE SMITH: Why did "Survivor" not only survive but succeed? And what does it tell us of television's future? Joining me now is Brian Graden, President of programming at MTV. That network's reality television program, "The Real World," launched the genre in 1992. And NewsHour essayist Roger Rosenblatt.
Welcome to you both. Roger Rosenblatt, let me begin with you and ask you what you think of this show, and the enormous appeal it seems to have for its audience.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Everything I think, Terry, has to do with its enormous appeal. I'll establish a context before talking about what I think it means later on. I just think this is as bad as television can get, indeed, as bad as a show can get. You had several unappealing, uninteresting people being watched by millions of other people with nothing better to do in a kind of faint-hearted voyeurism. I watched the whole thing last night, and I thought it would never end; it was a nightmare. Just when i thought it was over, Bryant Gumbel came on with the same people, this time cleaned up and shaven, and their mothers and their fathers and their pets and talking about the thing again and again. I've never seen such devotion to superficiality.
TERENCE SMITH: Brian Graden, I don't think roger liked that Roger liked that show, but let me ask you, what this show and maybe this whole genre of reality television says to you about network television today and about American popular culture.
BRIAN GRADEN: Right, I'll tell you what, you have to remember this generation of network viewers now has literally grown up watching Ricki Lake and Oprah and "The Real World" and the O. J. Trial, and the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. "Survivor" did not really come out of anywhere. We've been moving toward this kinds of programming, this kind of cultural television for about ten years and I think that there's just an endless fascination for trying to find some sort of human connection, especially the more insular our world becomes, the more we spend time in our little cubicles and socializing online, the more we're looking for some way to connect with people and I think seeing ourselves reflected back through these shows is the way to do that, and that's why I think they are so popular.
|A continuing programming trend?|
TERENCE SMITH: And therefore you expect more of it?
BRIAN GRADEN: Absolutely. In fact, out here in hollywood, the development place for all of the networks and indeed all cable channels include probably up to 30, 40 more reality projects - many of which will hit yet before the year is over.
TERENCE SMITH: What are some that you may know of that are in the pipeline?
BRIAN GRADEN: Well, there are all sorts. I mean, they're really moving even further. There's one show called "Chains of Love" where a woman will be chained with four different men -- this is not our network, by the way - and throughout the week she will eliminate one each day until she's left with one that she would like to spend the weekend with. There is actually a show where ten people will be locked up at a spa for a period of maybe two months or whatever and have to lose as much weight as possible and the first one to lose 100 pounds will be the winner of that particular show. So they're really, you know, moving even further and further afield.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, Roger, do you see what you have to look forward to?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yeah. I can't wait. I heard one today that they're going to send a guy into outer space who wins. I'm for all of that. Actually, I'd send them all into outer space. The thing about this idea of reality television though seems to me to be specious -- here this show is called "Survivor." Survival was never really in doubt here -- not real survival. These people weren't in danger. There was a kind of sort of childish analogy to corporate competition. But real survival was never in question. And it strikes me this whole idea of survival is a word that Americans, particularly prosperous Americans nowadays, have invented and hoisted in order to sort of apologize for life being too good. I will survive. The question here is not survival. If you want to talk about survival, take a look at Africa, take a look at Asia, take a look at people who are really in the throws of trying to stay alive. This isn't survival; this is just a form of bad and superficial entertainment.
TERENCE SMITH: Brian Graden, talk to me about the economics of reality television. Why is it coming on? Is it a dollars and cents issue in part?
BRIAN GRADEN: You know, I don't really think it is initially. It is absolutely cheaper to make these shows. You might spend a half million dollars on an hour of these shows, a network drama might be a million and a half dollars. So it is much cheaper but the truth of network economics is that usually two or three shows carry the other 30 shows. And a hit is a hit is a hit. And the revenue potential upside is so much greater on any one hit, that it really doesn't matter what it costs. It is a nice bonus for CBS; it's a nice bonus for those who will make cheaper programs, but ultimately you pay a really high price for any kind of hit. I think you're going to see more of it not because of the economics but it is creatively connecting with the audience.
|Is this reality?|
TERENCE SMITH: "Reality" -- that word -- Roger has trouble with it. Brian, do you? Is this reality?
BRIAN GRADEN: Well, you know, I don't think it is. I think there are a lot of producers who are mad puppeteers and there's sort of a spectrum - you know, "The Real World" on MTV is probably a little more real than "Survivor" where you have certain challenges and that kind of thing and then you move on down the spectrum. But the truth is, "Survivor," I actually see it a little bit differently because it is, i think, a perfect reflection in ways of the Machiavellian dog eat dog world that we live in the 21st century where you really do have to sort of scrap your way to top and I think people feel burdened by this. And even though everybody says they love to hate Richard, I think they kind of like him because they all know he has got the modern world dialed in a way that maybe we all don't.
TERENCE SMITH: Roger, I can see you shaking your head.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, the idea of this being some sort of model of a corporate competition, I suppose it is. But it is a soap opera version of it. If you want to see a model of corporate competition, watch "MacBeth." The whole difference between what's melodrama and drama and something important. Or take reality television at least as I remember it starting with an American family, the Loud Family. That did not offer a million dollar prize and it started out with a kind of Californiated family that looked as it everything was hunky dory. Eventually, the kids fell apart, the parents fell apart, right before our eyes not for a million dollars and with a great deal of pain. I must say I thought that was worth watching and there, people could make a connection between their reality and the reality of people on television. I made certainly no connection of my meager reality with the folks that i saw last night.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Brian Graden, do you think that this in anyway, the tendency towards reality television, in any way reflects a drying up of the creative juices in Hollywood that might have led to scripted drama or comedy?
BRIAN GRADEN: No, I really think it has to do with the taste of the culture -- like I say -- the things they've been inundated with over the last ten years. There's still a lot of talented writers who will continue to work. I just think it is more driven by the taste of the consumers than it is by any lack of particular talent in Hollywood.
TERENCE SMITH: Not Roger's taste, I would judge. Roger, did you identify with any of these characters? I mean, who would you have voted off the island?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I would have voted them all off the island. What I would have liked to do is to be the survivor, and work out my own so-called strategy. I love the way people are talking about the brilliant strategy of this fellow, which was as simplistic as anything. In any case, what I would have done is allow everybody to see these others for two weeks and then I would have murdered them. That would have been my strategy and no jury in America would have convicted me.
TERENCE SMITH: Brian Graden, is this, other than the Rosenblatt approach, which we will have to let the courts decide, is this the way the networks can reclaim, in your opinion, the audiences that they have lost to cable and the other alternatives?
BRIAN GRADEN: You know, it is a great question. I think in the short term, absolutely. We're seeing that summer. The networks are having record audiences, especially with young people. What is scary for the networks, if you think about it, is they used to be the monopolists, when it came to really expensive scripted dramas and comedies because they were the only ones who could afford it. Now they are making the lower cost program and there are literally probably 30 other cable channels who can afford the make the same kind of reality programming as "Millionaire" or "Survivor." So they're going to ramp up their development slates. So whatever made in network special a year ago, you may see across 40 channels a year or two from now, so in the short-term it's a great week for the network business; a year or two from now we might see them looking like everyone else.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Brian Graden and the dyspeptic Roger Rosenblatt, thank you both very much.
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