Reality TV

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Sep 7 07:30:11 MDT 2001

Posted September 20, 2000:

For the last two evenings I have watched the first two episodes of the
over-hyped "Survivor" television show, now in reruns. As unpaid chronicler
of the decline and fall of the American empire, I was curious to see how
such a cultural phenomenon fit into the big picture.

It is interesting that the show depicts two groups of people organized into
"tribes" on a South Pacific desert island. For capitalist economics, this
is the ideal framework. It not only eliminates all ties to factors beyond
the island, it also makes "survival" the goal of human economic activity.
For the Adam Smith tradition, the economic actor is Robinson Crusoe rather
than classes with a historically defined relationship to the means of

The two tribes compete in various games in order to win prizes such as a
spice rack, pillows, hammocks, etc. that make life on the island more
comfortable. Not only do you need to be athletic, you need a certain amount
of ingenuity. For example, one of the competitions last night was to
capture the attention of an airplane circling the island. The winner--in
this case the tribe that danced Busby Berkeley-sytle while lying on their
backs on the beach--received a trunk full of goodies.

At the end of each episode a member of the losing tribe is voted off the
island. The final "survivor" of all this receives one million dollars as a
prize. For those of you who are fortunate enough not to live in this
Babylon called the United States, it might be news that the winner was a
gay man in his forties who worked as a 'corporate trainer'. In the second
episode he is depicted building alliances with members of his tribe in
order to avoid being voted off the island. Speaking as somebody--prior to
my employment at Columbia University--who has seen this kind of behavior in
corporate America his entire adult working life, it is not surprising that
this show has become so popular. It tends to resonate off of most people's
everyday experience, except in an exotic setting where the subjects also
walk around skimpily clad and talk about sex a lot.

This business about competition and getting ahead is deeply engrained in
American society to an amazing extent. This was driven home to me the other
evening when I ran into my next door neighbor coming up in the elevator. As
I have mentioned, my apartment complex is locked in a big legal battle with
the landlord who is trying to take the subsidized building into the private
market, as is his entitlement after 20 years of being in the Mitchell-Lama
program. The net effect would be to triple most peoples' rent, including mine.

My neighbor has worked with the tenants committee, so there is no question
about her loyalties. Despite that, when the subject of the legal battle
came up as it so often does, I told her that the landlord seemed stupid to
be so greedy. If he had simply proposed a rise in rents that would have
increased his profits, while leaving nobody in danger of eviction, then
everybody would have been spared needless expenses and aggravation.

Her response startled me. She said that "He needs to make money. He is in
business." This despite the fact that she was one of the people who simply
could not afford to live there, if the rents went up. I suspect that she is
probably employed as some lower-level manager down in the bowels of Wall
Street, where identification with the boss is pervasive. In brokerage
firms, bonuses are awarded at the end of the year. This kind of
paternalistic gift tends to make the employee identify strongly with the

All of American society is flooded with messages like this. We are in a
struggle for survival. Competition is what makes the system work. Without
it, we are doomed to stagnation and unhappiness. Meanwhile, the evidence of
unhappiness with the current system continues to pile up all around us:
prozac has become as common as alcohol while popular music virtually
screams out its hatred for the system, although not in precise scientific
Marxist terms.


Posted January 28, 2001

[Tonight marks the first episode of Survival II, set in the Australian
Outback, a sequel to last year's smash-hit TV program set on a remote
tropical island.]

USA TODAY, June 1, 2000, Thursday, FINAL EDITION

This paradise comes with a pack of vipers

By Robert Bianco

Watching Survivor is like being stranded on Gilligan's Island with Charles

You're stuck in a beautiful setting with a similar set of annoying,
unnaturally selected castaways. But instead of cooperating, they're
maneuvering to see who can use the coconut phone first. It's like survival
of the ickiest.

Launched on CBS Wednesday, this Who Wants to Be The Lord of the Flies
hybrid follows the adventures of 16 contestants of various ages and types
on a remote tropical island off the coast of Borneo, where they were split
into two competing "tribes." At the end of each episode through the show's
13-week summer run, the contestants vote to eject someone from the island.
The person left standing gets $1 million.

>From the moment the show started, favorites for the title of first-to-go
became clear: Rudy, the Navy SEAL who gave everyone orders; B.B., the
contractor who complained about the "lazy people"; or Richard, the
corporate trainer who wanted to "talk about the process."


NY Times Magazine, January 28, 2001

Survival of the Pushiest

Mark Burnett, the producer of 'Survivor,' has not only created the mother
of all reality shows; he may also have revolutionized how the business of
television is done.


Sitting in a CNN studio on Sunset Boulevard, Mark Burnett stretches back in
a director's chair, half-smiling as Greta Van Susteren fires off a series
of earnest questions about reality TV. Where is it going? How long can the
trend last? What does it say about our culture? Burnett gazes into the
camera like a man surveying his property from a rocking chair on the front
porch. This is television, after all, and right now the amiable, supremely
confident Burnett seems to be the man holding the deed. . .

Even within the often bizarre precints of Hollywood, it's safe to say that
no other producer has a resume quite like Burnett's: British paratrooper,
Beverly Hills nanny, insurance salesman, used-clothing hawker. Michael
Davies, the executive producer of last year's other television phenomenon,
ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," says of Burnett and his work on
"Survivor": "There is absolutely, positively, no one else in television who
could have physically pulled off that show. Mark's an adventurer."

This is a running theme in the Burnett legend. He grew up in East London,
in housing built by the Ford Motor plant, where his father worked. His
mother worked in the car-battery factory next door. "I was an only child
and never criticized my whole life," Burnett says. "Unconditional love. You
can't ask for more."

At 18, Burnett joined the elite British Army Paratroop Regiment and was
sent to various hot spots, including Northern Ireland and the Falkland
Islands, where he saw "tons of action," including an all-out battle in
which 24 of the 300 soldiers in his regiment were killed. "Real stuff,"
Burnett says. "Horrific. But on the other hand, in a sick way, exciting."
He could have stayed in the service, he says, but then adds in his still
prevalent East London accent, "After that, do you want to go back and shoot
blank-blanks and run around Salisbury Plain playing silly buggers?"

So in 1982, Burnett headed off to Los Angeles, planning to shuffle down to
Central America, where he heard real money could be made as a sort of
"weapons and tactics adviser" (not a mercenary, he says emphatically). This
plan was scotched when his mother, whose premonitions Burnett had come to
heed unwaveringly, said she had "a bad feeling" about the enterprise. . .

In 1996, two years into his television career, Burnett ran into a fellow
Brit named Charlie Parsons at a party in Hollywood. Parsons was the creator
of the popular and somewhat notorious British program "The Big Breakfast."
He had a new idea, he told Burnett, one for a show about castaways on an
island, and he had been trying to sell it, on either side of the Atlantic,
since 1988. After a few months, Burnett negotiated a deal with Parsons for
the American television rights, and the two of them went from studio to
studio pitching the show. It took almost four years, but they finally found
a taker in CBS. . .

"Survivor" had eight corporate sponsors, including Reebok, Target and
Budweiser. To anyone who watched the show, the appearance of products was
anything but subliminal. Logos of running shoes, towels, even the
occasional beer repeatedly popped up on the screen. "Does the public care?"
Burnett asks. "No. As long as it's done honestly. I'm the first one that's
really done product placement on network. It's an integral part of the
plan." Burnett's plan, in its ultimate expression, is for a production
empire consisting of reality shows, a syndicated variety show, an annual
"Eco-Challenge" race at least as big as the Iditarod and a
sales-and-marketing umbrella big enough to sell them all.

Warming to the subject, Burnett adds, with unblinking earnestness: "I
believe we're going to see something like the Microsoft Grand Canyon
National Park. We couldn't care less if it's I.B.M. Yosemite National Park.
It's like, whatever. If somebody's paying to keep it up, fine. It's just a
name. It's not a bad thing. The purists might go, 'Oh, my God!' But the end
result is, the government won't take care of all that -- companies will.
It's sponsorship; it's associative value."

It's also extremely American, Burnett reminds me. Now married with two
young sons and living in Malibu, two minutes from a house where he once
worked as a nanny, he has reason to believe in the dream. "You know what's
great about America? Being working class and not having that classic
education in England, you're going to struggle. You know what Americans
care about? Results. You do well here, people say, 'Good for you."'

Louis Proyect
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