It is a bright, hot day in July and somewhere the clocks are striking noon. contestant Number One lays on the pristine white beach and instinctively checks his watch, but there is only a tan line where his Timex used to be. He has forgotten that on this deserted island off the coast of Borneo, in the South China Sea, there is only morning and night and the rain that comes every day in between.
In the forest behind him, a pack of macaque monkeys are tussling, and their competitive grunts reach him over the sound of the pounding surf. Soon it will be time for shelter, and already he has piled palm fronds on the beach to fashion a hut. He smiles, satisfied, and thousands of miles away in a New York City apartment, somebody sees that smile on television, and that somebody smiles too.
Welcome to the sharpest show to make it past the network suits in years, Survivor, coming this summer to CBS. The premise? Sixteen people stranded on a desert island, forced to endure the elements—and each other—in the company of 10 camera crews. Enjoy watching the trials and tribulations of the contestants as they attempt a Robinson Crusoe on Survivor Island with the benefit of only a few rudimentary supplies, like fishing line. Forget The Real World, where the only competition is for who’s the most narcissistic, and the only drama is whether one brat will steal another brat’s hairdryer. And you can forget Road Rules too, where it’s the same drama, only this time the hair dryer doesn’t fit the cigarette lighter adapter, which is a major problem because, oh my god, curly hair is sooo out.
The stakes in Survivor are a lot higher than the politics of hair and bathroom time—a million dollars higher, to be exact. That fat prize goes to the person who makes it through the entire 13-week run of the show. (No, it’s not mortal combat—although dangerous coral snakes do roam the island.) The winner is determined by vote. After each episode all contestants vote by secret ballot to eject one person. By the end of the season, only two contestants will remain, and then the seven previous surviving players will vote for a victor.
That lucky man or woman then waltzes off into the sunset and enters Spy TV history. What will it take to achieve this fame? It’s simply a matter of being the best you can be on prime-time TV. According to the show’s producer and creator, Mark Burnett, the fact that the world will be watching will not change the dynamics of this popularity contest. Despite the ceaseless monitoring by the mobile camera crews (a small production area is off-limits) and the fixed hidden cams placed strategically throughout the island, Burnett predicts the contestants will soon ignore the surveillance and struggle for survival as if they really were alone. For the surveillance star, being watched is not an invasion of privacy if the exhibition is voluntary.
The auteurs of Spy TV may say they only record what would have happened naturally—and the stars may think so too—but it’s hard to believe that 10 lbs. is the only thing the camera adds. In “real world” situations the camera magnifies a psychological response as surely as it exaggerates a waistline. Surveillance is intense, and not just for the voyeur safe in his living room. For the person who knows she’s under the electronic eye, even the most mundane tasks become hyper-real. So imagine the buzz of having your primal competitive urges captured live on film. Imagine too, the crash when the thrill is gone. On a similar show in Sweden, the first contestant to be voted off the island committed suicide a month after returning to his life of quiet anonymity.
But what’s in it for the viewer? Of course, the show provokes the titillation of voyeurism, and the morbid curiosity that goes with seeing people lose a popularity contest. But we’ve seen that before with The Real World. And it’s certainly hard to imagine it beating Cops for pure adrenal delight. So, apart from the prize, what may turn out to be Survivor‘s most original device is its cinematography. Burnett is the creator of Eco-Challenge, in which athletes compete deep in the jungle and other exotic locales. This show, much like Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line, counterposes raw human emotion with sensual shots of nature. A signature shot juxtaposes the strain of a competitor’s face against the elegant sweep of an exotic bird in flight. Burnett promises to push this sort of staged naturalism to the fullest in Survivor. We can expect “a close-up of a rain drop on someone’s nose, or a line of red ants marching across the sand next to where someone is sleeping,” Burnett says. This all amounts to a new look for Spy TV, which is usually intentionally low-res and jerky, with techie f/x.
But in addition to the visual satisfaction, the show will play a deeper cultural role. The theorist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard famously wrote that the cultural function of Disneyland was both to embody America and to mask the fact that all of America is a kind of Disneyland, a giant playpen of commercial fantasies. “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest [of America] is real,” he wrote.
What would he say of Survivor? Clearly, it embodies in a grotesque fashion the great American dictum to win friends and influence people. And at the same time it masks and normalizes the fact that this is already a surveillance society, a place where surrendering anonymity brings a reward.
You can see this tradeoff in action everywhere, but perhaps most vividly in another innovative product from CBS: iWon.com, a portal and search engine that entices users by entering them in a lottery. Ten thousand dollars is given away each day, a million a month, and 10 million at year’s end. But this lottery is only nominally free to enter. One has to fill out an identity questionnaire to play, and so losing anonymity is the price of admission.
Of course, CBS plans to use those names to recoup its $100 million investment. That means laser-precise marketing to every visitor to the site, and beyond. The fine print on iWon reads, “The individually identifiable information that you provide will be used extensively within iWON to provide a personalized experience to you….It will also be shared with iWON’s partners….” Considering the size and scope of CBS, its “partners” are just about every corporation in America. Welcome to the real survivor show.
And when you get down to it, Survivor and iWon are not such different enterprises. They both share the same Huxleyan formula of diminishing rights in exchange for increasing pleasure. Today’s surveillance may be sugar coated—but it makes for good TV.