Survivor, the Series I

  Just when it appeared that nothing could topple ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? from number-one ratings, CBS seems to have found the winning formula: Put 10 or 12 people in isolation, turn on the cameras, and Americans, sad to say, will watch their every move. Contestants in Survivor and now the new Big Brother are in it for the prize money, of course, but for much more. The real payoff is celebrity. Both Survivor and Big Brother are European imports. They dominated the television ratings over there. While the settings differ (an island in Survivor and a house in Big Brother), both shows share the same premise. A group of strangers are cut off from the outside world. Their lives and intimate interactions are filmed. And every week the audience watches in suspense as one contestant is eliminated from the show. Whoever is left at the end wins a million dollars. Well, these shows are only the latest examples of contestants and networks sacrificing personal dignity (and even decency) for the viewers' voyeuristic tastes -- and to make participants famous. Last spring, Fox's Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? drew huge ratings by having young women compete to marry a millionaire on the air. Darva Conger and Rick Rockwell, you may remember, were famously married, and then, after we were treated to the intimacies (or lack thereof) of their honeymoon, the marriage was annulled. But Rockwell used the exposure to jump-start a career in stand-up comedy. And Conger simply exposed herself, and got $500,000 for posing nude for Playboy magazine -- explaining that she had discussed it with God. And this is why the contests on Survivor and Big Brother are also willing to make fools of themselves. In contemporary America, celebrity, no matter how you achieve it, is what matters. In his book, Life, the Movie, media critic Neal Gabler notes that the word "celebrity" was rarely used forty years ago. People were described as "successful" or "famous." That is, their renown was tied to their "ability or accomplishment or office." In contrast, these past few decades have seen the emergence of people who are, as was said of Andy Warhol, "famous for being famous." What's more, as Darva Conger illustrates, there's little difference between notoriety and being notorious. What matters, you see, is that people know who you are -- for whatever reason. Once that happens, you can leverage that celebrity status, which is exactly what the people voted off the island in Survivor have done. They've appeared on talk shows and been paid handsomely for public appearances. As Gabler notes, our love of renown goes back to the founding of the republic. The Founders, operating out of a Christian understanding of human nature, knew that fallen men desire to be famous. But they believed that desire for fame would motivate men to great deeds and public service. In our post-Christian age, however fame has been disconnected from virtue. It's merely a function of people knowing who you are. So you're willing to do anything, which is what the contestants on these shows understand. That's what motivates the contestants, but why do we watch? Tune in tomorrow and I'll tell you why. What it says about us is not much better than it says about the contestants on these shows.


Chuck Colson


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