American TV's Dirty Dick knocks spots off Nasty Nick

The critics have called him a manipulative, Machiavellian, egomaniac, his only mission to see off all competition in the voyeuristic game show that has grabbed the attention of the nation. But he is not Nasty Nick. He is Dastardly Dick, the arch villain of Survivor, the US programme that has trounced not only Who Wants to be a Millionaire but also the US version of Big Brother in the ratings.

The critics have called him a manipulative, Machiavellian, egomaniac, his only mission to see off all competition in the voyeuristic game show that has grabbed the attention of the nation. But he is not Nasty Nick. He is Dastardly Dick, the arch villain of Survivor, the US programme that has trounced not only Who Wants to be a Millionaire but also the US version of Big Brother in the ratings.

This Wednesday, while Channel 4 audiences cope with a post-Nick household in Bow in London's East End, a record audience of 40 million Americans is expected to tune in to see whether Richard Hatch (aka Dirty Dick), Susan Hawk, Rudy Boesch or Kelly Wiglesworth will scoop the $1m prize for being the last survivor on a desert island somewhere near Borneo. A rating this high would rank the episode in US TV's Hall of Fame alongside such moments as the shooting of JR and the final Seinfeld.

Survivor, just like Britain's Big Brother, has been nothing short of a television phenomenon in the US, capturing the public's imagination. What's more, it's all the brainchild of a British television producer who sold the idea to American network CBS and is now set to make millions from the deal. Negotiations are now at an advanced stage for a British version to be broadcast on ITV.

Charlie Parsons, one of the co-founders of Planet 24, the company that dreamed up Channel 4's The Big Breakfast, first came up with his idea for Survivor more than a decade ago. In those days he could never get a British network to take it on board, but a Swedish version proved a huge hit, which has now been repeated in America.

"It has just caught the zeitgeist. It has become America's obsession," said Mr Parsons, who has since sold his stake in Planet 24. "Wednesday is the last episode and they are treating it like the Olympics with a two-hour special that 40 million people are expected to tune in and watch."

Survivor, unlike Big Brother, is broadcast once a week. It all began 13 weeks ago with 16 contestants, marooned on Pulau Tiga, a tropical island home to deadly water snakes, pythons, wild pigs and fierce monkeys. Each week, they sit in a form of tribal council where they reject a member of the group.

For the final episode, they are down to four contestants for the $1m (£690,000) prize ( Big Brother's winner will get £70,000), who will vote among themselves to decide the winner. Unlike Big Brother where the television audience votes on which of the household's two nominees to eject, in America viewers do not get a say. That doesn't seem to have harmed Survivor's popularity. While 17 million tune into America's Big Brother, last week's Survivor bagged 28 million viewers.

What delights American television executives most about the current clutch of voyeuristic game shows is their ability to attract more youthful audiences - an advertisers' dream - helping to lower the average age of viewers watching CBS by five years.

And all this despite the fact Survivor's contestants are older than Big Brother's - finalist Rudy Boesch is 72, a grandfather of one, and saw active service in the US Navy, which he joined in 1945.

Exploiting the new game show format has become the Holy Grail for television networks. Britain's Channel 5 is planning to broadcast Jailbreak, in which contestants vie to get out of jail, from the beginning of next month. The rights to the show have been bought up by ABC even before it has been tested in the UK. Meanwhile Survivor is set to hit British screens as soon as a deal is signed.

But not everybody is happy with the success of Big Brother, Survivor et al. Yesterday Channel 4 was accused by a senior Church of England bishop of creating a "human zoo". The Right Reverend James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, expressed concern about the effect the programme was having on both audiences and the participants in the Big Brother house, who last week witnessed the expulsion of "Nasty" Nick Bateman for breaking the show's rules.

"What they are doing in the end is colluding with the creation of a human zoo where the human beings are trapped in a confined space under continual observation and occasionally fed treats by Big Brother," he said. "Who knows what the long term consequences are going to be? I wonder how Nick will actually cope with the hostile public reaction and the hostile press he is encountering."

However Channel 4 press officer Matt Baker, who has been with Mr Bateman since he left the house, said that he had been offered full support to cope with his ordeal, including access to a psychologist.

"He is clearly readjusting to life on the outside. We would have to acknowledge that he has been a little surprised, should we say, by the scale of reaction to the programme," Mr Baker said. "Sometimes he is incredibly excited and some moments he is a little bit taken aback, but in the main he is a strong person and he seems to be doing very well."

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