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September 10, 2006


Ben Hoyt

I just finished reading "Tenacious TV,” by Chuck Klosterman. I particularly enjoyed this summary of Survivor, which seems like the most succinct I have ever heard: "Every season, the mediocre majority unifies to destroy the unrivaled. After that, it becomes a popularity contest based on lying."

However, I think that Klausterman makes two important mistakes. First, I would caution him against using a single reality TV program as a proxy for all others. Much as the merits and appeal of Lost are different than those of a sitcom like Will and Grace or a sketch show like Saturday Night Live, the appeal of a contest-based reality show like Survivor or Amazing Race is very different than that of a celebrity-spectacle like Flavor of Love or Surreal World, a social experiment like Frontier House or the Real World, or a voyeuristic validation of normalcy like Wife Swap or Supernanny.

Second, as an avid viewer of both Survivor and Lost, I think that Klosterman’s analysis of the appeal of Survivor is fundamentally flawed. While he is correct that the RESULT of the show seems fairly predictably to be the "leveling of the playing field" which he rather derisively describes, Klosterman states that “the perfect Survivor contestant needs to be ‘ungreat.’ That is…why audiences will always relate to reality vehicles like Survivor, even when its action seems dull and artificial.”

Unfortunately, this statement, which seems to be the crux of Klosterman’s point, completely misses the reason why people watch Survivor. Fundamentally, Survivor is a social GAME. Watching a season of Survivor has far more in common with watching the MLB playoffs than it does with a season of Lost. In sports, “fans” identify with a "team" and hope that “their team” will avoid elimination and overcome all of the other, inferior, “opponents.” Similarly, when people watch Survivor, they decide who they like the most and why they want that contestant to win and then root for that contestant.

Most people don’t watch Survivor because they identify with jealous, mediocre, manipulative, “ungreat” contestants like Richard Hatch or Jeri Manthey, as Klosterman would have us believe. Richard Hatch and Jeri Manthey are the villains of the show, the New York Yankees, the players everyone expects to win but no one wants to. People watch Survivor because they enjoy “armchair quarterbacking” the contestants decisions and hoping that the Chicago Cubs; the Rupert Bonehams, or Rob Marianos, or Colby Donaldsons; the most likeable, shrewdest, or most admirable contestants; who therefore also happen to be the game’s underdogs, can somehow win. Of course, even the New York Yankees have their fans and occasionally an underdog like the Red Sox will win the World Series. The point is that, as in sports, even if your “team” doesn't win it all, it can still be a lot of fun to watch them try.

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