Pop Culture

‘Survivor’ still stays fresh after seven years

Seven years after its American television debut, “Survivor” enters its fifteenth season. The show has survived longer than many expected, navigating past controversy and dealing with slipping ratings. But it has also managed to remain one of the most-watched shows on television, even without the same level of media attention garnered by other reality shows, such as "American Idol."

With a rumored second all-star season in the works for its sixteenth season, and coming off of two seasons that had attention-getting gimmicks (“Survivor Cook Islands” divided its tribes by race and “Survivor Fiji” featured have and have-not tribes), the show is taking a relatively low-key approach for “Survivor China.”

As always, producers have selected a location with stunning landscapes and landmarks that will undoubtedly be reverently captured on film. Advertisements emphasize the location above all else, reminding the world that this is the first major American TV series to film inside China.

The cast, who will live on islands, will visit the Great Wall and other places throughout the season. In interviews, host Jeff Probst has also revealed that the physical location is particularly difficult; besides dealing with hot summer days, the tribes also will contend with a lack of food, and will be given rice to compensate.

“Survivor” is once again changing its game slightly. This year, Exile Island has itself been exiled, and the show is making kidnapping — a one-time event in the past — part of the game’s structure. Reward-challenge winners will, according to CBS, kidnap a member of the losing tribe, and that person will hold both information and power: the clue to the winning tribe’s hidden immunity idol, which he or she will give to someone of their choosing.

That frequent interaction between the two tribes will add a new dynamic to the game that may affect the tribes’ strategy, but it could also have an impact after the tribes merge. They won’t be strangers in the same way that they have sometimes been in the past, but they will also not have the same bond found in contestants who met in tribes that were later shuffled before everyone finally joined together.

The cast itself is only known right now by their CBS-provided biographies and head shots, but they fall into familiar categories, as have the contestants who’ve come before them.

There are those with interesting careers (WWE wrestler Ashley, gravedigger James, school lunch-lady Denise), those who appear to be ready to physically dominate at challenges or survive outdoors (hiking guide Amanda, ), those who will likely be good at stirring up drama or strategizing (Christian-radio talk-show host Leslie, professional poker player Jean-Robert), and those with less-than-typical nicknames (Frosti and Chicken).

Do videos expose too much?All-in-all, “Survivor China” seems familiar, the return of an old friend after a little plastic surgery or too much sun at the beach. Perhaps that explains why, in advance of the premiere, CBS has posted videos on YouTube that were filmed and narrated by host Jeff Probst on location.

These unprecedented videos offer behind-the-scenes looks at the show, and have almost nothing to do with the series’ main focus: the mental and physical game play that unfolds as 16 people form alliances, strategize, and try to work together under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Instead, the videos focus on what it takes to allow that drama to unfold: the massive , the , the group of staff members called the who compete in every challenge before the actual cast does, testing it to make sure it works and providing the crew a chance to practice filming the action.

The videos are, of course, a smart form of marketing, playing to fans’ desires for behind-the-scenes details. However, they are “risky business,” because “much of the ‘Survivor’ mystique is its ability to create the illusion that the contestants are pretty much alone, out in the middle of nowhere.”

That may have been true seven years ago, when the first-season finale of "Survivor" was watched by more than 50 million people, an audience “American Idol” has never even come close to. Now, the ratings have settled, and while they continue to drop from season to season, "Survivor" remains among the top 20 most-popular television shows, and last season, was in the top 12 during its run.

The show also has retained a loyal fan base that remains enamored with the production and captivated by the game. Jeff Probst’s behind-the-scenes videos engage the show’s core audience on a new level, revealing the kind of hard work and planning it takes to pull off a series that doesn’t do retakes or fake the real interaction that occurs within its artificial walls.

If anything, this new perspective on the series will give viewers renewed appreciation for a reality series that’s offered consistently high-quality television for seven years.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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