To say that Survivor changed television over the past nine and a half years would be an understatement. But as the show debuts its 20th season in mid-February, its impact on television is both ubiquitous and not quite obvious.
That’s because both Survivor and its effects are so common that they don’t seem noteworthy any more. While Survivor wasn’t the first broadcast network reality show – ABC’s Making the Band was, unless you count Fox’s one-off Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire special, or go back to PBS’ An American Family in the early 1970s, or start getting into debates about whether Cops was a reality series like the ones that air today – it took a huge step forward and pulled television with it.
What Survivor really did was combine multiple formats: The Real World-like drama that came from real people interacting in a structured environment; the competition of game shows; and epic storytelling and cinematography from scripted series.
By merging those components, Mark Burnett and his outstanding team of hundreds of talented crew members challenged all of television to not only step up their game, but to embrace non-fiction as a genre that, when done well, could provide entertainment that easily beat scripted TV in ratings, ad dollars, buzz, and even quality.
Today, we can thank – or blame – Survivor for lots of things: Lost (ABC’s Lloyd Braun wanted a scripted show that incorporated some of the CBS series’ elements), open doors for international formats, and summertime programming that doesn’t consist solely of repeats.
Of course, there’s also that proliferation of unscripted shows across all channels. The number of hours of unscripted TV on broadcast nets during the spring and fall may have waned these past few years, but that seems like evidence that Hollywood has stepped up its scripted offerings in response to reality’s threat. Networks also seem to have finally realized that not just any non-fiction format will immediately draw tens of millions of viewers, though every summer they do try hard with some new, poorly conceived shows.
Survivor also set a very high bar and standard for other shows to follow. Too few unscripted shows, alas, aspire to find hosts as competent and personable as two-time Emmy winner Jeff Probst. Many don’t do as good of a job casting or vetting their contestants to provide a mix of strong, real personalities, not just those who want to be on TV. And too many shows are content to film in bland locations, like the same mansion for a derivative dating show, or they just set shows in L.A. because it’s cheaper and easier than finding a more visually rich backdrop.
Survivor, like all shows, has room to improve. Budget cuts have affected the production, forcing it to shorten its break between seasons and stay in the exact same location for both, and some fans have long complained about changes ranging from larger casts (18 or 20 instead of 16) to the recruitment of contestants who are model/actor-types from the L.A. area. The recruited cast members, however, have been some of the show’s best finds, because people who are looking to be on TV don’t necessarily make the best TV.
The show remains strong, consistently winning its time slot and delivering surprising reality-based entertainment. That’s because its basic formula still works, and remains an excellent model for the producers of both scripted and unscripted television.