While it wasn’t the first reality show to land on television, it has been one of the most popular, and it certainly has staying power. Survivor, the CBS juggernaut in which a group of contentious castaways is stuck in the “wilderness” together to “tough it out” through various challenges.
The show is so embedded in the American consciousness that it has spawned a series of cultural references we would not have without it. Today, when someone is ousted from a situation, we might say they were “voted off the island.” Yep, that came from Survivor’s infamous “tribal councils” at the end of every episode, when the fellow castaways would vote to send one contestant packing.
The show had so many elements that glued eyes to TV sets. Intrigue, a true sense of good guys and bad guys not seen on “reality” TV outside of professional wrestling. There was scheming, alliances, betrayals, physical trials, and more than a little carefully pixelated nudity. All the factors that American TV viewers seemed to love. The formula has been copied and changed slightly to apply to countless other reality topics, but never as effectively as Survivor.
How successful has this formula been? Well, CBS just announced Survivor will renew for the 34th time. There have been some gimmick seasons, some “all-star” moments, and some locations that really didn’t work very well. But, overall, Survivor kept chugging along, season after season.
On network TV, CBS seems to have the magic formula. Survivor’s debut of the new season was one of the top 20 shows in the ratings week. Of those, 13 were on CBS … not a bad record.
So, what is the network doing to keep Survivor popular and to win with so many other shows? Step one is creating a hit. Step two is building around it. Viewers might be a bit more finicky and less loyal than they used to be, mainly because of having so many choices, but there’s still a comfortable sense of inertia when it comes to TV viewing. People will watch the show after the one they’re watching if it’s any good. And CBS has found more than a few shows that work, including The Big Bang Theory, Criminal Minds, and NCIS.
That’s not to say they don’t have strong competition. Cable networks, even premium cable, are starting to draw audiences like never before. Shows like Game of Thrones on HBO and The Walking Dead on AMC are huge ratings hits. And there’s a host of Netflix-created shows that are stealing eyes and viewing time from the major networks.
These facts make Survivor’s, well, survival, even more impressive. The show continues to roll, even as TV as a whole is changing dramatically.