Survivor, the Series II

  Last month, TIME Magazine covered America's infatuation with so-called "reality" television. The high ratings being garnered by shows like CBS's Survivor and Big Brother are proof, as TIME put it, that we like to watch people in intimate moments. It's true that voyeurism accounts for some of the interest in these shows. But I believe their popularity lies mainly in their appeal to a darker part of the human soul. The offerings from CBS aren't the only examples of "reality" -- meaning unscripted -- television these days. MTV's Real World chronicles the lives of a group of people -- apparently chosen to maximize the possibility of conflict -- sharing a home. And ABC's Making of the Band lets viewers watch the travails of a group of young men vying to become the newest teen music idols. Whereas these shows only offer viewers a chance to eavesdrop and watch, the CBS offering goes beyond mere voyeurism. On Survivor, contestants are divided into two teams called "tribes." Each week, these tribes compete against one another in a series of competitions that owe more to motivation guru Tony Robbins than Robinson Crusoe. The loser of the competition has to vote one of its tribe members off the island. So contestants have an incentive to work together for the good of the group. But, in reality, the teamwork is a sham. The person who sacrifices for the good of the team this week will be resented and voted off the island next week. For instance, a young woman who ate bugs for her team was voted off -- in part because her strength and determination made her a formidable competitor for the show's grand prize. This duplicity and Machiavellian scheming, along with the ritual elimination every week, is the show's principle attraction. People are fascinated by a perverse form of Darwinism, a "survival of the shrewdest." And after each episode, the Internet and radio stations are filled with discussions of which scheme and which bit of duplicity is working. Survivor succeeds, in large measure, because it appeals to our selfishness and willingness to sacrifice others for our own ends. The other show, Big Brother, offers the audience something that Survivor doesn't: A say in who is "banished" from the show. In each episode, contestants select two candidates for removal. The audience then, voting by 900 phone number, chooses from among the candidates. Of course, the audience doesn't know these people, and doesn't have good reasons to wish them ill, but that doesn't stop them from voting -- even when they have to pay for the phone call. Survivor and Big Brother's stock in trade is the chance to participate, either vicariously or directly, in the misfortune of others -- from a safe distance. Fundamentally, it's the very same impulses that made the ancient Romans flock to the games, or for nineteenth-century Americans to bring picnic baskets to public hangings. As the Salon web magazine puts it, "we watch shows [like Survivor] because we're only looking for a good mean laugh at some bozo's expense . . ." Indulging this impulse isn't good, for those watching or for society in general. And, in reality, "reality" television is little more than seedy voyeurism, with a dangerous mix of exhibitionism and outright cruelty. In my mind, it would be much healthier to turn off Survivor on the TV and read Robinson Crusoeinstead.


Chuck Colson


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