It is a bright, hot day in July, and somewhere the clocks are striking noon. Contestant No. 1 lies on the pristine white beach and instinctively checks his watch, but there is only a tan line where his Timex used to be. He has forgotten that on this deserted island off the coast of Borneo, in the South China Sea, there is only morning and night and the rain that comes every day in between.
In the forest behind him, a pack of macaque monkeys are tussling. Their competitive grunts reach him over the sound of the pounding surf. Soon it will be time for shelter; already, he has piled palm fronds on the beach to fashion a hut. He smiles, satisfied. And thousands of miles away, in a New York City apartment, somebody sees that smile on television. And that somebody smiles too.
Welcome to the edgiest show to make it past the network suits in years, Survivor, coming next summer to CBS. The premise? Sixteen people stranded on a desert island are forced to endure the elements — and each other — in the company of 10 camera crews. Enjoy watching the trials and tribulations of the contestants as they attempt to pull a Robinson Crusoe on Survivor Island, with the aid of only a few rudimentary supplies, like fishing line. Forget The Real World, where the only competition is for No. 1 Narcissist and the only drama is whether one brat will steal another brat’s hair dryer. And you can forget Road Rules, too, where it’s the same drama, only this time the hair dryer doesn’t fit the cigarette-lighter adapter, which is a major problem because, oh my god, curly hair is sooo premillennial.
The stakes in Survivor are a lot higher than the politics of hair and bathroom time — $1 million higher, to be exact. That fat prize goes to the person who makes it through the entire 13-week run of the show. (No, it’s not mortal combat, although dangerous coral snakes do roam the island.) After each episode, contestants cast secret ballots to select one person to eject. By the end of the season, only two contestants will remain. The last seven players ejected will choose the final victor.
That lucky man or woman then waltzes off into the sunset and enters the Spy TV Hall of Fame. What will it take to achieve this fame? It’s simply a matter of being the best you can be on prime-time TV. According to the show’s producer and creator, Mark Burnett, the fact that theã world will be watching will not change the dynamics of this popularity contest. The ceaseless monitoring by the mobile camera crews (a small production area is off-limits to contestants) and the fixed hidden cams, placed strategically throughout the island, will not deter contestants from struggling for survival as if they really were alone, Burnett said in a telephone interview. For the surveillance star, being watched is not an invasion of privacy if the exhibitionism is voluntary, or so the theory goes.
The auteurs of Spy TV may say they will record only the action that would have happened without their presence — and the Survivor “stars” may back them up — but it’s hard to believe that the only thing the camera adds is 10 pounds of gadgetry. In “real world” situations, the camera magnifies a psychological response as surely as it exaggerates a waistline. Surveillance intensifies experience, and not just for the voyeur safe in his living room. For she who knows she’s under the electronic eye, even the most mundane tasks become hyperreal. So imagine the buzz of having your primal competitive urges captured live on film. Imagine, too, the crash when the thrill is gone. On a similar hit show that has run for the past two years in Sweden, the first contestant to be voted off the island committed suicide a month after returning to his life of quiet — and anonymous — desperation.
But what’s in it for the viewer? Voyeurism, of course, and the morbid fascination of watching people lose a popularity contest. But we’ve seen that before with The Real World. And it’s certainly hard to imagine Survivor beating out Cops for pure adrenal delight. So, apart from the prize, what may turn out to be Survivor’s signature innovation is its cinematography. Burnett is the creator of the cable-TV show Eco-Challenge, in which athletes compete deep in the jungle and other exotic locales. Much like Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line, Burnett’s show counterposes raw human emotion with sensual shots of nature. A signature shot juxtaposes the strain of a competitor’s face against the elegant sweep of an exotic bird in flight. We can expect “a close-up of a raindrop on someone’s nose, or a line of red ants marching across the sand next to where someone is sleeping,” Burnett says. This all amounts to a new look for Spy TV, which is usually intentionally low-res and jerky, with techie F/X.
But the show will also play a deeper cultural role. The theorist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard famously wrote that the cultural function of Disneyland was both to embody America and to mask the fact that all of America is a kind of Disneyland, a giant playpen of commercial fantasies. “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest [of America] is real,” he wrote.
What would Baudrillard say of Survivor? Clearly, the show embodies in a grotesque fashion the great American dictum “Win friends and influence people.” At the same time, it masks and normalizes the fact that this is already a surveillance society, a place where surrendering anonymity brings rewards.
You can see this tradeoff in action everywhere, but perhaps most vividly in another innovative product from CBS: iWon.com, a portal and search engine that entices users by entering them in a lottery. Ten thousand dollars is given away each day, $1 million per month, and $10 million at year’s end. But entry to this lottery is only nominally free. One has to fill out an identity questionnaire to play. So losing your anonymity is the price of admission.
Of course, CBS plans to use those names to recoup its $100 million investment. That means laser-precise marketing to every site visitor. The fine print on iWon reads, “The individually identifiable information that you provide will be used extensively within iWon to provide a personalized experience to you . . . It will also be shared with iWon’s partners . . .” Considering the size and scope of CBS, its “partners” are just about every corporation in America. Welcome to the real survivor show.