What Did We Learn From Survivor?

It was the summer of 2000: a rather tranquil time even though a Presidential campaign was going on. The big TV Networks still dominated entertainment, and their success was still measured in the “Sweeps” period from September through May. A new kind of show premiered on CBS: Survivor. It took 16 people to a remote part of the Earth (Borneo) and put them down with little resources and 24-hour camera crews. The purpose of the game was to survive the hostile environment and compete with each other for a million dollars.

It took the country by storm, and it was difficult to ignore it. I can say this because I tried, however each time someone was voted off the Island, they appeared on several talk shows, and parts of the evening news was dedicated to the progress of the program. At that time, it was a unique kind of attention. It gained huge audiences and made tons of money for its creators: this was the show that launched immediate imitators like Big Brother, and it was the common ancestor of all the reality shows on television now. From a group of real people trying to survive in the wilderness, it wasn’t a huge jump to see people trying to survive in other strange places, like Beverly Hills, Alaskan crab boats, next door to Hugh Hefner’s mansion and Louisiana Bayous. Heck, if the situation was strange enough, you didn’t even have to stage a life or death contest for a slice of pizza.

Looking back, I wonder how much of the decade of the ’00s and of today is reflected in that series. In many ways, I think it anticipated many ideas and issues that have surfaced since. What did it teach us?

-Survival is the most important thing; everything else is secondary and must be jettisoned at the right time,  including friendship.

-Community (tribe) is important to survival, but is dispensable.  Working together is nice while it lasts, but remember, the people you work with are your competition.

-Gaining trust is important but keeping it isn’t.

-Never be transparent, or let your real motives be known until the last moment.

-People who aren’t necessary or are a threat should be voted off the island.

-Cutthroat, no holds barred competition is just business, just playing the game, not personal.  You shouldn’t hold someone accountable for just playing the game, even if they lie and/or cheat.

-When you vote people off, you need to avoid responsibility for their departure so they won’t punish you later when they vote who gets the big prize.

-Life is punctuated by artificial contests for luxuries, which demand full attention and enthusiasm because they can give you immunity from bad things, at least, they distract you from how awful things really are.

-For news services, entertainment programs are more newsworthy than most things, except perhaps a world war or other natural disaster.

Some of these items are human flaws that have been around since the beginning. Watching whether a snake or a rat wins the contest (the caricature of the last two 2 contestants in 2000) can be entertaining: ratings and advertiser interest prove this. My concern is that it’s more than entertainment, and reflects a great deal of domestic disorder in life today.  The cost is a positive view of what community is in any sense of the word.

Why is it relevant today? The show’s still on the air, and it re-presents these standards for popular consumption time and time again.  A great deal of serious news coverage is now about entertainment in general, and to some extent, political figures are treated like entertainers and politics like a reality show. Smart people realize it’s a game, but as P. T. Barnum once said, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Popular entertainment, over time, can set societal standards, and these standards are destructive.

The problem: we can do better. Strength in numbers isn’t just a means to stay alive in the face of nature, it’s about living life to the fullest and becoming our best selves. Offering prizes for shallow accomplishments will only boost morale temporarily, because after a while, the winner of the bobbing for apples contest doesn’t matter and doesn’t change the larger reality. Sacrificing trust for material gain has a price beyond wealth that shouldn’t be paid.

The winner of the first season of Survivor spent a large amount of time in jail because he tried to cheat the government, which offered no immunity for winning anything. Sooner or later playing Life like a season of Survivor means that in many important ways, we lose our humanity.


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