Thursday, February 02, 2006

A New Batch - A New Gimmick

It probably should be hard to be the producer of Survivor. Every season it seems as though you have to come up with a new gimmick or two to keep viewers interested. You've done men versus women. You've done pick teams. You've done switch teams halfway through. You've brought back people who were eliminated already in a season. You've brought back people who were eliminated the previous season. You've done an All Star Season and split the players up into four teams for that. You've even done a season where one team was voted to near extinction. You've played with all sorts of gimmicks. Then you look over at the people at The Amazing Race - you know the show that's cleaned your clock three times at the Emmys - and you see that the one and only time they tried a gimmick, in the form of The Amazing Race: Family Edition not only did their ratings go down rather than up but they were roundly criticized by fans and professional TV critics who wanted the show to go back to the way it was. Sometimes an ordinary mortal producer would question whether he needed gimmicks to keep his show fresh, or whether just focussing on the players would be enough. But of course the producer of Survivor is Mark Burnett a man with a gargantuan ego (despite having only Survivor, The Apprentice and arguably Rock Star: INXS as legitimate hits) who just happens to be sleeping with Roma Downey (that's not really relevant but I just thought I'd mention it): if he thinks that the series needs a new gimmick every season then by heavens it gets a new gimmick every season.

There are what initially appears to be two gimmicks this season. One is that there will be four teams this season "old versus young, men versus women", while the other is something called "Exile Island". The four teams gimmick is something of a fraud however since host Jeff Probst has let that particular cat out of the bag by telling the various entertainment "news" shows that it will only last one episode. And really I have difficulty in seeing how that particular idea could be sustainable over any real length of time given sixteen player. That would mean four players per team and a team that lost two players would be at a serious disadvantage. I initially suspected that they might go to three teams of five after the first elimination, but apparently what will actually happen is that once the first episode is completed they'll go back to the "schoolyard pick" method to come up with two teams. According to Jeff Probst, in an interview with the Cincinnati Post, maintaining four separate production crews for any length of time would just be too expensive.

I have to confess that the other gimmick for the season intrigues me a bit more. This season's edition has the full title Survivor Panama: Exile Island and the gimmick attached to that is that in each episode one player will be sent off for three days alone on a mysterious and vaguely creepy "Exile Island" without shelter, food or fire. Obviously this keeps them away from their home camp and out of the alliance building, backstabbing loop. Plus, the deeper into the game you get the harder the potential impact - physically and mentally - will be for the player who is going into what amounts to solitary confinement. On the other hand there is a potential benefit for the player going to Exile Island in the form of a hidden Immunity Idol. The player who finds the Idol can use it at any time, and most importantly doesn't have to reveal that he or she has it until after an elimination vote. Thus there's the potential for someone to be voted out unanimously only to reveal the Idol and have their own vote be the only one to decide who will be eliminated. According to the Post interview, Probst said that "At one point in tribal someone said, 'You know, we think this has changed the game too much.' I cracked up. That's definitely a sign that's working."

Probst also described this as one of the top five Survivor casts ever. Although to my mind how good a Survivor cast is can only really be known after the season has ended, this group has a great deal of potential. Most of the pre-season attention has gone to former astronaut Dan Barry, but there's also Misty Giles, a rocket scientist (amazingly the second one to appear on the series) who is also a former beauty queen, and former F-14 pilot Terry Dietz. There an LA based entertainment promoter named Shane Powers about whom Probst says "Shane's the guy that if he walked in every season and looked different, we'd put him on every season," Probst said. "He opens his mouth and you go, 'Oh, what's he going to say next?'" My own personal favourites are Bruce Kanegai, an art teacher and Karate instructor who also used to train California police officers "arrest and control techniques, weapon retention and the side-handle baton", and Ruth Marie Milliman whose varied career includes being a college cheerleader, a page at the South Carolina legislature, flight attendant, the first female narcotics agent for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Agency and (I swear) the 1978 South Carolina Watermelon Queen. Also of note was Tina Scheer, a "logging sports promoter" who was selected to participate in Survivor Guatemala but was forced to withdraw following the death of her only child in a car accident a week before she was due to leave. The producers offered to keep a spot open for her in the next series, if she felt it was ready to do it.

Full biographies for all 16 members of this season's group can be found at the Survivor website.

In all honesty I have to say that I don't know how well this season of Survivor will do in the ratings. According to the Cincinnati Post article Survivor Guatemala experienced a slippage in viewership last fall, despite what I thought was one of the most challenging environments they've ever operated in (Probst likes this season's cast better though - according to him they are more enthusiastic about the game than the Survivor Guatemala group). Moreover, this season the show is going up against a program where the audience has to watch the show live in order to participate. Dancing With The Stars has been maintaining strong ratings - third place on the night although weaker in the 18-49 demographic - since it debuted. Are viewers going to abandon a show which they already have four weeks invested in emotionally to watch the early weeks of Survivor? And how will Survivor do against Dancing With The Stars and two Thursdays of NBC's Winter Olympics coverage. While I don't think this combination will be fatal to Survivor, I would not be at all surprised to see a major ratings dip for the episodes on February 16 and 23 in particular.

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