The Real Deal

Jul 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

In with the old and out with the new.
That seemingly was the TV critics’ reality mantra as they chose the sixth edition of “Survivor” as their favorite reality show and the fourth edition of “The Amazing Race” No. 2.
Newcomers such as ABC’s “Are You Hot?” and Fox’s “Married by America” and “Mr. Personality” turned up among critics’ least favorite shows.
CBS dominated the favorite category, with 68 percent of critics who responded choosing “Survivor” (39 percent) or “Race” (29 percent) as their favorite reality show. Critics also named “Survivor: Amazon” the seventh-best show on television in the entire poll-the highest ranking ever for a reality series in TelevisionWeek’s poll, since the second edition of “Survivor” ranked seventh in the poll.
“We are very selective,” said Ghen Maynard, senior VP of alternative programming at CBS. “Everything we do has to reflect a vision and be promotable. We get very involved in all the details and aspects of the production. Every single show so far-knock on wood-that we’ve put on has come back for multiple seasons. It’s not about throwing a ton of stuff up and hopefully a couple of things stick.”
Numerous critics called “Survivor: Amazon,” which pitted men vs. women in a battle of the sexes, the best edition ever. “`Survivor’ is still the class of this genre,” said Ruth Butler, TV critic at The Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press. “Even when we fear it will get stale, Mark Burnett puts forth good twists, good casting and keeps us enthralled.”
Tim Goodman, TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, cited “Survivor: Amazon” as his favorite reality show and the No. 5 best show on TV. “Despite the fact that the allegedly hot and decidedly dim Jenna won, this was a very inspired installment and proved that a few franchise reality shows are worth not blowing up the whole genre,” he said. “The formula just works. Jeff Probst is only getting better, and it’s probably the best-edited reality show on TV, even if the editing lies. Doesn’t matter. It’s a franchise for a reason-because it’s damn entertaining.”
Mark Burnett, creator and executive producer of “Survivor,” said good storytelling is the key to the show’s success. “We’re an unscripted drama more than we are a reality show,” he said, calling in from Panama, where production has started on the seventh edition of the show. “All through history, the great books, the great movies, the great TV shows are about characters, their relationships and the stories within a setting. This is not about the game. It’s about the storytelling and the characters. All the game should do is help drive stories.”
Mr. Burnett isn’t worried about topping last season’s popular men vs. women edition. He said there is a huge twist on the front end of the seventh edition, which airs this fall, that will surprise viewers. “It started like it never started before,” he said.
Another key to the success of both “Survivor” and “Race” is that they aren’t inherently mean or set up to be humiliating, Mr. Maynard said.
“[In] `Survivor,’ yes it’s a little mean when someone gets voted out and walks down that path, but it’s not about being mean,” he said. “Everyone knows what that feels like. You can be a kid who was chosen last and you know what that feels like, or you can be a grownup who is the first guy laid off from a company and you know what that feels like.”
TV critics said one aspect they like about “Race” is that it is a contest with a clear-cut deserving winner-the fastest team wins. “It’s not about people preening before a camera and endlessly plotting the next backstabbing scheme,” said TV Guide TV critic Matt Roush. “It’s about initiative, drive [and] having great experiences in eye-popping locations.”
“Race” executive producer Bertram van Munster said a big reason the show works is it is a true reality show. “We turn people loose,” he said. “We let them do whatever the hell they want to do. The moment they leave America they are on their own. I think the critics realize that we also are in awe of what happens in front of the camera just like the viewers. It’s completely unmanipulated.”
While each edition of “Race” has been a huge critical hit, Mr. Maynard and Mr. Van Munster said it has been disappointing that the show hasn’t found a larger audience. So far this summer, “Race” is averaging a 3.2 rating/11 share in adults 18 to 49 and 8.5 million total viewers. In the same Thursday 8 p.m. time slot during the regular season, “Survivor: Amazon” averaged a 7.5/20 in adults 18 to 49 and 20 million total viewers.
Fox’s “American Idol” averaged higher ratings than “Race” and “Survivor” with a 10.1/26 in adults 18 to 49 and 21.7 million total viewers, but it finished third among critics’ favorite reality shows.
“[`Idol’] managed to make us feel passionate about television, which is a real knack these days,” said Rich Heldenfels of the Akron Beacon Journal. “It turned a music show into referenda on patriotism and race, among other topics. Yes, it played tricks. Yes, two of the three judges have turned themselves into cartoons. But it remained intense viewing and great fun both to watch and argue about afterward.”
As for worst reality show, the critics saved their wrath for ABC’s “Are You Hot?” Thirty-five percent of the critics responding skewered it as their least favorite reality show and named it the worst show on television. Ed Bark, TV critic for the Dallas Morning News, named “Hot” his least favorite reality show. “Let me count the ways,” he said. “It’s debasing, sexist, degrading and gave Lorenzo Lamas a semblance of a career before America came to its senses.”
The critics also continue to hate NBC’s “Fear Factor,” which finished as their No. 2 least favorite reality show with 23 percent of the vote and placed as the No. 5 worst show on TV. “ `Fear Factor’ is a blight on the medium,” said Tom Jicha, TV critic at the Sun-Sentinel. “It’s the TV equivalent of bum fighting.”