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A history of reality television (part three): Big Brothers, Amazing Races and naked castaways - VIDEOS

by Richard Keller, posted Jul 9th 2008 6:00PM

survivorThe summer of 2000 started out to be a typical one for television: repeats, theatrical movies edited for television, repeats, shows that needed to be burned off because they were so bad, and repeats. It was a formula that hadn't really changed for the Big Three networks in several years. And, it was one that viewers had gotten used to as they mourned the last episode of their favorite series and waited with eagerness for the new season to begin in September.

Then, something happened. CBS decided to air a 'game show' about a group of strangers stranded on a tropical island. Survivor began at the end of May and continued into the end of August. Along the way it gained more and more fans and produced more and more publicity for both the show and the network. By the last episode, on August 23rd, Survivor had become a huge success as well as one of the highest rated original shows ever to air in the summer.

Little did CBS know that this summer replacement show would begin the Reality Revolution and change the landscape of network television forever more.

The concept of Survivor was pretty simple: put a number of strangers together in a remote location, strip them of all of their creature comforts (food, clean water, shelter), then have them team up into 'tribes' that would work on various challenges in order to win valuable prizes. Think of it as a live-action version of Gilligan's Island with Thurston Howell doling out cash. Or, a slightly more civilized version of Lord of the Flies. Despite the simplicity of the concept there were a few twists to all of this.

First, rather than being a genuine team effort, much of the game emulated more of the phrase 'Survival of the fittest' with every man and woman for themselves. Next, immunity was provided to tribes or individual players when a challenge was won. Third, fellow tribe members could vote for one of their own to be removed from the show during the Tribal Council. Hence, the reason for immunity.

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Add to this tribal switches, tribal merges, rewards of luxury items, eating items that weren't really considered food, and the fact that they were tired, dirty and hungry. Combine it all together and it led to less-than-friendly interactions and secret agreements between castaways who were and were not in the same tribe. Which, in turn, led to dramatic television and the emergence of stronger characters that became immediate fan favorites. For instance, the always naked Richard Hatch became a personality fans either loved or hated (or both) during the first season. Same could be said for the retired Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch.

Those elements are what brought the viewers back to the Survivor week after week. Plus, it was practically the only game in town during the summer of 2000. Besides Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on ABC and the Summer Olympics, Survivor was the only other original regular series programming on at that time. That's why, after the series premiere, the show pulled an average of 28 million viewers each week, and a whopping 52 million viewers for the season finale.

Not even Big Brother, CBS's other summer reality offering, could compete against Survivor during this time. Hosted by Julie Chen of The Early Show, Brother featured a number of regular people who became HouseGuests in a small house where everything they did was recorded by cameras situated in every room. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In the beginning the show had more of a The Real World feel to it as we saw the normal interactions of strangers thrown together into an enclosed space. The only difference between World and Brother was that both the HouseGuests and viewers could vote to banish someone from the house.

In the first season the HouseGuests would enter a Diary Room to let the viewers know what two HouseGuests should leave the house. The two with the most votes would be marked for removal. It was then up to the viewing public to vote on who should be banished from the house. By the second season, after hearing viewers mention how boring the first season was as opposed to Survivor, Brother added a new competition to each episode. The winner of that competition would become the Head of Household and given the right to choose the next "evictions". Eventually, Brother would have more of the feel of Survivor than The Real World with concepts like the the power to veto one of the Head of Households eviction nominations (including their own), and the Big Brother Jury. Comprised of the final seven members evicted from the Big Brother house, this jury determined who the winner of the Big Brother competition will be.

Of course, television being television, Survivor and Big Brother didn't remain the only network reality programs on the air for long. By the 2000-2001 schedule ABC offered up its own reality game opera -- The Mole. Replacing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and hosted by Anderson Cooper, The Mole was an import from Europe, just like the original versions of Survivor and Big Brother.

Like Survivor, players were put together on a team to complete physical and mental challenges in order to build up a cash pot for the winner. The twist to this program was that one of the players was a 'Mole'; a double agent hired by producers of the show to sabotage the team. Examples of sabotage would be heading in the wrong direction to complete a challenge, failing a trust test, or allowing team members to fail at a game of laser tag. At the end of this episode the players would be given a quiz to determine who amongst them was the Mole. The player who answered the least amount of questions correctly would be "executed" and have to leave the team. Unlike Survivor, The Mole was not a huge ratings success for ABC and, after a few more seasons, left the air (although, it is returning to the schedule this summer).

Another game opera to premiere, and quickly disappear, from the 2001-2002 schedule was FOX's Boot Camp. Similar in format to Survivor, this series featured 16 civilians who participated in a real-life military boot camp. Drill instructors would put the contestants through various training exercises in order to prepare them for a variety of missions. Contestants would split into two teams to complete these missions, and the winning team would get rewarded, while its team leader would receive immunity.

Every few days the contestants would enter the Dismissal Hall to vote, by secret ballot, for a member of their group to be dismissed. The dismissed member would then discharge another player. This kept the amount of players even throughout the series. Despite this extra little twist, Survivor producer Mark Burnett sued the makers of Boot Camp because the show was so similar to his hit CBS program. It didn't matter, though, as Boot Camp lasted only one season on FOX. Mr. Burnett shouldn't have sweated the show because, as the years, progressed, many of the elements of Survivor would be incorporated into other new reality programs.

By the 2001-2002 season reality was fully ensconced into the daily viewing habits of television viewers. Besides the weekly airings of Survivor on Thursday nights and the summer runs of Big Brother there was also the introduction of The Amazing Race to the primetime schedule. One of the lesser watched but most interesting reality game operas, Race pitted a number two-person teams (sometimes more) in a race around the world. The teams aspired to reach various 'Pit Stops' along each leg of the race, winning them prizes and a chance to move on to the next leg. Coming in last to the these stops caused a team's potential dismissal or a lengthy delay in starting the next race leg.

While averaging only about ten million viewers per week, The Amazing Race has been both a critical and fan favorite. Popularity of the show has grown since its premiere thanks to a number of Emmy wins in the category of Best Reality-Competition Program and to praise from celebrities and regular fans alike. It still remains one of more popular reality game operas to this day, being the fifth longest running reality show on the air behind CBS siblings Survivor and Big Brother, MTV's The Real World and FOX's COPS.

Many more reality game operas appeared on the networks and on cable in the years following. Most of them followed the same format as the now-veteran Survivor. On FOX's Paradise Hotel (Summer, 2003) the object was to be the last person to remain in the hotel the longest. On NBC's The Apprentice (Winter, 2004), Donald Trump put 16 movers-and-shakers through their paces in order to find the right one to work for the huge Trump organization. On ABC's The Benefactor (Fall, 2004) another 16 contestants tried to win $1 million dollars from entrepreneur Mark Cuban.

While those shows had their successes, none of them compared to the ongoing popularity and staying power of Survivor. Without this reality game opera the television landscape would look much more different today. Which, to some, is a good thing.

Research data for this post courtesy of TV.com and Wikipedia.


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Mary W.

What words are said during the opening theme of The Amazing Race? Sounds like "they're out there", but because the words are being sung, they're not clear. Could you please clear up this mystery ? !!!

July 20 2008 at 11:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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