Forget Nasty Nick, all US viewers care about is the last 'Survivor'

For one night at least, Americans could not care less who makes it to the White House in November. As up to 40 million television sets were tuned into CBS last night, the only question on the country's mind was which of the four remaining contestants - Rudy, Susan, Kelly or Rich - would be the last standing on the runaway hit show Survivor.

For one night at least, Americans could not care less who makes it to the White House in November. As up to 40 million television sets were tuned into CBS last night, the only question on the country's mind was which of the four remaining contestants - Rudy, Susan, Kelly or Rich - would be the last standing on the runaway hit show Survivor.

The programme, a desert-island version of the BBC's Castaway but with far more vicious politicking and a diet for contestants of maggots and rats, is a ratings phenomenon that threatens to transform prime-time television.

Unlike scripted dramas or sitcoms, its stars cost little or nothing, yet they have become as recognisable and sought after as any bona fide prime-time actor. There are no agents, managers, stylists or personal trainers to accommodate. The show requires no writing talent.And although the winning survivor walks off the island with$1m (£676,000), over 16 episodes that works out at a little more than one-tenth of the salary commanded by any one of the six principals on Friends.

Not only has Survivor rejuvenated the ailing CBS network, creating a ratings winner both for the show itself and for spin-offs and talkshows where the contestants appear, but it has also lodged a near-heretical question in the minds of all network executives - who needs writers and actors?

Survivor is called a "reality show" but its success does not solely lie in the voyeuristic pleasure of the maggot-eating or the endurance tests. What makes it so compelling is the sheer human drama of individuals scheming to stay on the island and the wonderful unpredictability of each episode.

Survivor doesn't just obviate the need for writers and actors, it might even be better than scripted drama. Who would have thought that Rich, the 39-year-old corporate trainer, would declare his homosexuality and spend large chunks of time roaming the island naked? Or that Greg would talk into sea-shells as though he were on the phone and run off into the woods with the sexy Colleen? Or that Ramona would not stop throwing up, even before she had to eat maggots? Executives would not dare show this at prime time if they knew that was coming.

The shifting sands of alliances and betrayals on the South China Sea island has been something of a cross between I, Claudius and Alex Garland's The Beach, only with shameless product placement and plentiful advertising breaks at $600,000 per 30-second spot.

The money and celebrity-milking have been blatant. Most participants now have agents, who have booked appearances on soaps and TV dramas and - for Colleen and Jenna - fielded offers to pose for Playboy. A sequel, this time in the Australian outback, will begin airing in January.

Together with Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, the equally compulsive gameshow on ABC, the new television trend has got writers and actors worried. Both are expected to go on strike next April, for unrelated reasons. They will have to hope there are still television executives around who care enough to listen to their grievances.

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