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After 'Survivor': A reality TV check

By Lauren Hunter
CNN Entertainment Correspondent

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

The 'eyes' have it

Why all the watching?

Good old curiosity and new media

A big dose of reality


LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Charles Darwin wrote "The Origin of Species" more than 140 years ago, but his famous theory of the survival of the fittest has found new life in the executive suites of American television networks.

In an industry famous for cutthroat competition, this summer's reality TV shows have become a pop culture phenomenon and left a string of stunned TV executives scrambling to catch up.

As Richard Hatch celebrates his widely unexpected triumph over the other 15 contestants on the last episode of "Survivor" Wednesday, let us do a reality TV check.

The 'eyes' have it

CBS has bragging rights for a long time to come, having been bold enough, or perhaps desperate enough in its own bid for ratings survival, to take a chance on the original programming of both "Survivor" and "Big Brother" in a historically slow season of re-runs.

The network with an eye for a logo is the undisputed winner in the summer TV sweepstakes for turning eyes onto private lives.

More than 15 million viewers tuned in to the first episode of "Survivor" in May, and the numbers grew through the 13-episode summer, according to Nielsen Media Research. The second-to-last episode, on August 16, reached nearly 29 million viewers. According to Nielsen, 51.7 million viewers watched Wednsday's finale.

A good part of the "Survivor" audience was the coveted, advertiser-friendly, 18-to-49 year-olds, the demographic that networks live for.

"Big Brother," now airing six nights a week, has averaged about half of "Survivor" numbers. Its highest ratings have been on Wednesdays, capitalizing on the "Survivor" lead-in. The area where "Big Brother" excels is its online audience, which extends dramatically beyond the broadcast viewers.

Why all the watching?

Both shows are billed as "reality TV," but the reality is that both shows are highly structured, choreographed affairs.

The participants are real people in edited circumstances. There is no scripted dialogue, but there are specific, scripted situations with arbitrary parameters, including no outside contact. And there are of course physical and mental challenges.

The final four survivors, from left: Richard Hatch, Rudy Boesch, Kelly Wiglesworth and Susan Hawk  

Alliances among contestants are formed and broken, and only one winner is possible in the end. It is almost like a big, televised game of "Risk."

It is not the first time networks have gambled on reality-based programs. PBS broadcast the breakdown of the Loud Family in "An American Family" nearly 30 years ago. Similar shows have been on for years, among them "Cops" on Fox and "Taxicab Confessions" on HBO.

But those reality shows are different from this summer's hits, where the people have, in effect, been cast for their roles. The producers of both "Survivor" and "Big Brother" were able to cull an applicant pool in the thousands to get their desired mix of age, race and personality.

Could you imagine a better villain than the alliance-forming Hatch on "Survivor"? David Letterman has used Hatch as a foil nearly every night on his show, calling him "that naked fat guy." He is the million-dollar man who had everybody talking.

"Survivor" executive producer Mark Burnett told me the island culture on Pulau Tiga was no different from the bedrooms and boardrooms of American society. That is, we have to learn to get along with people we like and people we dislike and, to survive, we have to keep trying.

"Big Brother" executive producer John de Mol likens the fascination with these shows to listening to someone else's conversation in an elevator, or looking in someone's window when we walk by at night. He calls it a natural and widely accepted sense of curiosity.

Put another way, the reality TV shows are "visual gossip," said media psychologist Stuart Fishoff, of California State University, Los Angeles.

Good old curiosity and new media

Our age-old curiosity about one another has married new-age technology and given birth to a 21st century phenomenon.

"Big Brother" aficionados anywhere in the world can logon to to watch and hear the "houseguests" in southern California at any time, day or night. Web sites devoted to specific TV shows are not new, but the way this show is using its site may be breaking new ground.

America Online, a partner of the show, gets a rise in traffic for the site after the shows on Wednesday nights, when a houseguest is banished, according to AOL online adviser Regina Lewis. (Time-Warner, the parent company of CNN and, and AOL are awaiting government approval of their plans to merge.)

Millions of Americans appear to be turning on their computers after the broadcast show to continue watching the house happenings via streaming video.

Chat rooms and message boards are replacing water coolers among viewers, as scores of related sites make the Web the place to go to trade opinions about "Survivor" and "Big Brother" contestants.

There have been some minor snafus, including an incident when the "Survivor" Web site released the name of one of the evicted contestants a couple of hours early, reportedly by accident.

But both shows have capitalized on increased visibility with a growing second audience online.

A big dose of reality

"Survivor" wrapped up this week. "Survivor 2: The Australian Outback" hits U.S. shores January 28, 2001, right after the Super Bowl.

The entry deadline has passed, but if you had been interested in being one of the lucky 16 contestants to brave kangaroos and emus, you should not have bet your retirement on it. Almost 50,000 applications have been submitted to CBS -- more than eight times the 6,100 who applied for the original show.

"Big Brother" is scheduled to air in the United States through October. Show executives are mum about future stateside plans. But as of September, there will be 12 different versions of "Big Brother" from Germany to Spain to England and beyond, all broadcast on TV and on the Web.


ABC's hugely successful "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is the granddaddy of the current generation of game and reality-based shows. Also in this growing family are MTV's "The Real World," "The 1900 House" on PBS, and "Making the Band" on ABC.

And on the way are several new reality TV shows. One is ABC's "The Mole." It is about a team of contestants competing in physical and mental challenges as they fight a traitor in their midst.

All of which goes to show that Chauncy Gardner in "Being There" was right -- we like to watch.

RELATED STORIES: Entertainment
   •Reality TV: We have met the product, and it is ourselves
    -- August 16, 2000

"Big Brother"
Nielsen Media Research

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