'Survivor' angst

We can all rest easy tonight. America's intelligentsia has located and begun to address the most threatening issue we face as a people: reality-based television.

They have met the enemy and it seems to include 16 people - make that 12 now - on an island in Southeast Asia. I'm talking about CBS's new game show/homage to "Lord of the Flies," "Survivor."

In the last few weeks, the media have lined up like pitchers at the dunk tank to take shots at the show, and I, for one, would like to know why, exactly?

For the uninitiated, here's the premise: A group of people have been placed on a deserted island and broken into two teams. Every week they have to perform in various silly competitions, and at the end of every show, the losing team has to vote one of its members off the island. The last man or woman left standing wins $1 million.

And this, according to the media, raises all sorts of "serious questions" about us as a nation.

Do we really enjoy watching people stab each other in the back just to get money? Is being on television so important to us that we would embarrass ourselves in front of a national audience - some of the survivors have captured and cooked rats for food - just to get our 15 minutes?

Last week's cover story in Time said the show was part of a new trend in television, "VTV" - the first V is for voyeur, of course.

It said: "Ironically, the mainstream embrace of voyeurism comes precisely as many Americans feel their own privacy is in danger, be it from surveillance on the job, marketers on the Net, or database-wielding bureaucrats in their HMOs."

Ironically? What exactly do these things have in common with the show? Time for a step back.

First off, VTV - that new threatening force - isn't really new at all. We've had "Candid Camera." And MTV's "Real World" has been regularly providing us with meaningless, overhyped, reality-based programming for nine years now, where young housemates addressed such burning questions as, "Did Puck deliberately skip the house meeting?"

Second, everyone on "Survivor," or any other VTV program, knows exactly what they're getting into; the cameras here are no secret. If "Survivor" has a real corollary, it isn't data theft or spying on a neighbor, it's America's greatest current obsession, sports.

Two teams. A game. An uncertain outcome. Lots of money involved. We just had all this in that other reality-based show, the NBA finals. The one big difference: Most of us knew that outcome in advance. (Come on - did you really think the Pacers had a chance?) At least the ending is more open to question on "Survivor."

The media are upset that we like to watch people back stab each other to advance? That is the driving force behind office gossip. The media are upset that people will embarrass themselves to get famous? That was the driving force behind getting people to say those ridiculous lines on "Melrose Place."

There are, of course, some legitimate knocks on "Survivor."

It is silly, inane, and totally fabricated. But how exactly does this differ from the rest of television? Are we upset that "Survivor" doesn't live up to our generally high television standards like "Becker," "Judge Judy," or "When Animals Attack"?

Yes, I admit it. I like "Survivor."

I do not fool myself into thinking I'm learning anything about human nature. I do not organize my day around it. But if I'm home, I'm going to tune in.

Of course, I could just read.

But what book compares with watching a person capture, cook, and eat a rat?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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