Can Reality TV Survive Terrorism?

Survivor: Africa immunity challenges new contestants Oct.10, 2001 kenya
All the world is not a stage. It's a playing field.

Life isn't the drama that Shakespeare envisioned. It's a game.

These things come to mind with the kickoff of “Survivor: Africa,” the third of CBS' back-to-nature tourneys. It premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.

You know the game plan: Sixteen players are “stranded” (under the watchful eye of scores of production people) in some picturesque but rugged environment — this time, Kenya's Shaba National Reserve.

Then whoever is able to Outwit, Outplay, Outlast the 15 others comes away the winner.

But are viewers really in the mood? The nation is still reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and jumpy at the prospect of more. The economy is shaky. There's a war going on.

Is “Survivor” a game viewers still care about now, in the early stages of a deadly serious game the news channels like to call “America Strikes Back”?

Unsurprisingly, Mark Burnett, the series' creator, believes the audience needs a little respite. “I'm a viewer, too,” he told reporters last week. “I'm totally in the mood for escapist television.”

So let the game begin as “Survivor: Africa” joins other prime-time “reality TV” like ABC's “The Mole 2,” CBS' “The Amazing Race” and Fox's “Love Cruise.”

Who will Outwit, Outplay, Outlast this time? Will it be Jessie Camacho, the deputy sheriff from Orlando, Fla.? Tom Buchanan, the goat farmer from Rich Valley, Va.? Clarence Black, the basketball coach from Detroit?

They and their “Survivor” rivals come from ordinary backgrounds. These rough-and-ready volunteers are just like you — at least, those of you who happen to be super-fit, wildly competitive, and in a position to blow off your families and jobs for several weeks of isolation that millions of viewers will see.

That's reality TV: a further blurring of the once-sacrosanct dividing line between spectators and players.

Once upon a time, TV presented life to its viewers as a spectator sport. In that simpler era, you were happy with your designated role as couch potato — idle, passive, transfixed by the screen.

Maybe this cozy arrangement was first disrupted by talk TV, which invited viewers to strut their stuff (and parade their pathologies) while fellow viewers looked on.

The new rules were clear: Leave the stands and storm the field. Presto! You're a player! At least, until the next commercial break.

Meanwhile, TV shows and networks were urging viewers to “tell us what YOU think.” Don't just sit there, say something! Phone in! Log on! With nothing more to recommend yourself than a telephone line, you could get in the game.

Of course, “Survivor” demands far more from its players than armchair punditry. You have to leave your living room. You even have o leave the country.

You have to spend a month outdoors with other scheming people. You have to endure physical challenges and inclement weather. You don't get enough to eat. And then they dare you to eat bugs or animal brains.

What do you get for your pains? A million bucks in cash if you're the winner and, for all concerned, priceless attention.

The roster for “Survivor: Africa” was announced with great fanfare two weeks ago. Then the players were introduced last Thursday through their audition-tape clips on “Survivor: Countdown to Africa,” which host Jeff Probst called “an insider's guide: how to watch, whom to watch and what to watch for.”

The game viewers will watch starting this week is a done deal. “Survivor: Africa” has already been played. Now the footage will be packaged as an adventure narrative and parceled out to viewers in weekly installments.

Are viewers ready to embrace “Survivor: Africa” as they did its predecessors? Currently, a life-and-death challenge grips the United States, changing by the day and consuming everyone. In this uncertain new age, when victory against terrorists would seem as hard to achieve as it is to define, how will a formulaic contest like “Survivor” fare with viewers?

“When you watch for three minutes,” promised Burnett, “you'll be saying two words: `They're back.'"

Maybe they're back, but has their moment passed them by? “Survivor” is for people who are looking for trouble, the more frivolous the better.

But now, deadly trouble dominates the eye. There's a chilling game afoot with an undetermined outcome. Everyone is watching. And, one way or another, everybody plays.

Written By FRAZIER MOORE, AP TV Writer © MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed