TV's gladiators of greed

The next time someone asks, "What is the world coming to?" I have a handy answer: game shows. Not just knowledge adventures, but high-concept shows designed to turn people into gladiators of greed.

It has been described as MTV's "The Real World" meets "Lord of the Flies," a dramatic twist in the world of game shows that will place people on a deserted, 10-mile island off the Borneo coast and, through process of elimination, leave the game show "Survivor!" the winner of a million bucks.

The premise is to drop contestants on the island without shelter, food, and - it would appear - their sanity for six weeks, eliminating, via a vote, one contestant per week.

It's like those Budget Rent A Car commercials. The ones where there is a room full of trendy, young ad moguls brainstorming advertising-campaign ideas. One hotshot comes up with the idea to give renters a great deal "if they climb Mt. Everest."

Then the group goes into fantasy mode and they visualize three guys sitting in the snow of Everest, frozen in hideous form while attempting the stunt. At that moment, they all snap out of their reverie and say, "Nah! Let's just give them the rental at the lower price."

Apparently, the creators of the new "Survivor!" show were cut from the same cloth as their commercial counterparts, but have failed to snap out of it.

They will probably do just that the day the voracious news crews are swarming like flies - or mosquitoes - because something has gone terribly wrong.

I know this because I am a survivor (save the exclamation point). I lived for nearly five years aboard sailboats with my husband and small children along deserted stretches of coastline and at crowded marinas. I can tell you about what it's like to spend weeks without hot water, store-bought food, and other amenities. We've seen the skies go black in moments when a tropical depression hits a deserted island.

We began it for fun and ended up doing it to survive. What we learned is that survival and the elements, the tropics, are not aware of your plans or that it is a game. They are serious about life and how you live it ... if you continue to live it.

Actually, the CBS television people and the elements are not the really scary elements - it's the people from around the country lining up to do this stunt in hope of cashing in.

Some view it as a vacation, while others see it as the adventure of a lifetime or a way to get rich quick.

The CBS producers are looking for photogenic candidates with good physical health and a sense of humor. In short, they want good television.

I can tell you that food, hot baths, and the ability to charm are the least of the worries someone embarking on this survival stunt is about to face. They're in for some mind and life alteration. If they go to that island without faith in themselves or belief in something other than a good time and a big bank account, they'll find that even if they win, they lose.

That's what I learned from my stint away from polite society, during months when all our food came from trees and nets cast into the unforgiving azure waters of paradise. These people are going to one of the places that gave birth to the phrase "cruel beauty."

But the real catch is that they aren't going to that island alone. They're taking us with them. If we tune in we are part of being the hunters in the big game. We are the voyeurs of the things that will try their souls. That is what the producers know this is really all about.

What does that say about us? Where have we come from and where are we going?

The producers are looking for "us" in these people, someone we will relate to. Then they are going to drop us all on the stretch of beach and see how we all fare.

Will we turn on each other, or work together? Will we laugh or cry at adversity? Will we buy the sport utility vehicles and soft drinks the sponsors will flash at us while we watch? Will we say thumbs up or down at each tribal meeting when someone is to be discarded from paradise?

I will not be watching when the show airs. I would rather not see the spectacle of how far we haven't come. Maybe I'll just settle in with a good book, a classic, like "The Emperor's New Clothes."

*Lisa Suhay is a freelance writer in Medford, N.J. She is a columnist for the South Jersey section of the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of the forthcoming 'Tell Me a Story' (Paraclete Press).


Monitor columnist Godfrey Sperling, who appears every Tuesday, is on vacation.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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