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The real survivor is ... 'Survivor'

By Agnes Teh, CNN
  • "Survivor" debuted in 2000 after Mark Burnett brought rights from Sweden's "Expedition Robinson"
  • Show is still a consistent winner in the 8 p.m. U.S. prime time slot ratings
  • We can see our own social struggles played out on "Survivor," commentator says

(CNN) -- "And the title of the sole Survivor of 'Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains' goes to ... Sandra Diaz-Twine."

With that, the winner of the 20th season of CBS' "Survivor" was announced last night at the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York City.

It's been 10 years since the show crowned its first winner, Richard Hatch, earning Hatch $1 million, a Pontiac Aztek -- and status as America's newest celebrity.

Hatch's fame was fickle: The celebrity spotlight, legal problems and a prison term for tax evasion took their toll on the love-to-hate-him corporate trainer. But "Survivor" came out of that first season as the country's No. 1 show -- and though ratings have never hit the peaks of the frenzied summer of 2000, it's been an unqualified success for its network, CBS, and producer Mark Burnett.

Still, 10 years? The idea that "Survivor" would last a decade was not something that even host Jeff Probst would have put his money on.

"I would've lost everything I owned today by betting that we would not still be on-air," said Probst.

"In fact, I was so naive to how television really worked that I just assumed because the show was really popular in the first season that it would get a second season for sure ... then I thought this will probably go on for three seasons which is pretty good. I'll make some money, be a TV host. I had no idea we'd be doing this 20 seasons later," Probst told CNN.

"Survivor" debuted in May 2000 when Falklands War veteran and eco-adventurer Burnett bought the rights from British producer Charlie Parsons to produce the show in the United States. It was first shown in 1997 in Sweden under the name of "Expedition Robinson."

In an interview with Ontario's London Free Press, CBS president Leslie Moonves remembered an early conversation with the prolific producer: "Mark told me early on, 'This show is going to last -- don't worry about a day job for a while.' "

He was right.

Three months later, the show -- which introduced the novel concept of a group of strangers living together in an island while vying for $1 million -- captured the imagination of an audience of 60 million in its very first finale. And it could not have found a more perfect winner in the skilled conniver Hatch, thereby opening up the floodgates to a new decade of reality TV.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Of course "Survivor" wasn't the first of the reality TV genre -- others like PBS' "An American Family," MTV's "The Real World" and Fox's "Cops" were around long before.

But it was the first to challenge the face of prime time TV programming and introduce reality TV as mainstream fare for audiences in America and beyond. It made celebrities out of ordinary citizens. Perhaps the biggest evidence of its success is how it is still a consistent winner in the 8 p.m. prime time slot on Thursdays -- a huge achievement considering the increasingly overcrowded reality field.

"Survivor" stands out because it possesses the key ingredients of great storytelling, says Misha Kavka of in the Film, Television and Media Studies department at the University of Auckland (New Zealand), who has a forthcoming book on the history of reality TV. Producer Burnett brings a brand of reality known as "dramality" -- a slick style of drama that is part of the show's identity and success, says Kavka.

Its editors employ strong use of visual metaphors of nature, which parallel the dramas in the tribe. For viewers, it presents a group of people facing the challenges of meeting strangers and living in the open, which functions very well as an allegory for social situations that we understand from our lives, Kavka said.

"The reason [the show] works is because we can see our own social struggles played out on the 'Survivor' stage. We identify not with particular participants, exactly, but rather with many of the situations that arise. Much has been written about 'Survivor' as a metaphor for office politics, and I agree that that's certainly an aspect of it," she said.

Probst recalls how the team had "no idea what to expect" when they were first reviewing tapes from the first season of "Survivor," which took place in Borneo.

"And then there was this exact moment when Richard Hatch was sitting on the tree and he was saying over and over again, 'We need to talk, we need to talk.' And Sue Hawk, the truck driver from Wisconsin, is walking underneath him and she finally says something to the effect of 'Where we're from, we work while we talk!' and I think we all went, 'That's it!'

"And that was the show -- how do you get along when you're fighting for a million dollars."

The show's strong casting and the unpredictability of its people is a strong part of its appeal as well.

Its characters are as volatile as the show's most hated villain, Russell Hantz. There is no telling when they'll call it quits (Johnny Fairplay) or if they'll go on to find all the immunity idols known to man (Russell Hantz) or if they'll step down for two doughnuts and a milkshake (Colby Donaldson).

"No one knows where it's going -- not even the producers," said Kavka.

And then there's Probst himself, the everyman host who was probably best known before the show as the emcee of "Rock and Roll Jeopardy" on VH1. He's evolved from weekly torch snuffer to skilled questioner and meticulous observer.

Probst's position in tribal councils should not be underestimated, said Kavka.

"Viewers see him at his best in the studio show at the end of a season, where he turns out to be a good study of human nature which is to say that his insights parallel our own 'intimate knowledge' of participants," she said.

Ultimately, "Survivor" speaks to some of our inner fears, said Probst. The notion of being abandoned on an island is "like a little kid who's separated from his mom. ... You're stranded in a supermarket and you get that feeling of, 'Oh my gosh, I'm alone,' " he said.

"[And] being voted out is the same as being laid off from your job or being picked last in a basketball game. It's being told: 'I don't like you.' And the idea of 'The Tribe has spoken' is really just another way of saying, the news is in. It's final and it's not good."

But there's the dream, too, for contestants and viewers -- the dream that you'll be the last one standing.

"Everyone fantasizes about being in our place," says "Survivor: Micronesia" winner Parvati Shallow, "and loves imagining what he would do in that situation."