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June 28, 2000

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I Just Don't Like Survivor

       My good friend Al Martella told me a couple of years ago, "Steve, they're not going after us any more." Al meant guys over 40. That's obviously what CBS had in mind when it developed Survivor.
       I'll tell you up front: I don't like Survivor. I'm not offended or upset if you do. The show is almost enough to make me take back every bad thing I ever said about Gilligan's Island.
       Survivor has to be classified as a game show because the producers are giving away $1 million and the 16 castaways have to be competitive and cutthroat to win it. Yet, most of you know this is not our mother's or father's game show (is that what my kids are saying about me now?).
       First off, about 85 per cent of this "sweet 16" compose the most unpleasant collection of people I've ever seen. They make me want to sing the old '60s hit, "These Are Not My People," when they come on my 27-inch in the living room. As I told Ruth Koscielak on her radio talk show Monday, "They aren't exactly the crowd I'd invite over for supper."
       Further, I just love how the castaways are performing their tasks and you know they all raise the stink level from how little bathing they do. Then, Jeff Probst comes strolling along as if he is performing "Our Town in Borneo," perfectly decked in his immaculately pressed Land's End safari attire. Except for the night when the Tribal Council vote was taken during a rainstorm.
       Speaking of the Council, isn't that the most contrived bunch of hooey you've ever seen? The solemnness. The holding the votes up to the camera and explaining the reasons (although didn't Tom and Peggy and Kitty and Orson used to do that at the table?). At least on Greed, they get it over quick with The Terminator and only had one contestant to faint.
       So help me, if that woman---who was virtually celebrating the fact she has personality conflicts with people in her work all the time---doesn't shut up, I may do to my set what Elvis reportedly did when he saw Robert Goulet singing on The Mike Douglas Show 30 years ago.
       However, having said all of this and reflecting why this show is not in my taste, I am not surprised at the numbers it is generating, particularly with young viewers. Over the last 15 years, we've raised a television and movie generation conditioned to embrace abrasiveness, arrogance, discourtesy and disrespect as the equivalent of fun and games in entertainment. Hollywood screams about mean-spiritedness; yet, a huge percentage of what producers dish out and is accepted by teens and young adults is full of it.
       Survivor wouldn't survive with genuinely nice people, which may be why Sonja Christopher being the first ejection was inevitable. This kindhearted woman who probably has survived a bigger battle in conquering cancer than any of these yahoos collectively have just was not "their kind of people."
       Ruth made an interesting point with me on her show Monday when she said: "I'm hypnotized by it---I don't really like it---but I can't stop watching it." That's true, I'm guessing, for much of the audience. People are watching in big numbers because and they aren't sure why. I have a few theories.
       Take it all the way back to Candid Camera, which started in 1949. We've had a history of enjoying voyeur programming----looking in on people in their natural states. Take The Gong Show. Just as contrived as Survivor but Chuck Barris had the right sense we would watch people make fools out of themselves for 45 seconds at a time. The practical joke element of Dick Clark's and Johnny Carson's Bloopers and Practical Jokes followed the same pattern.
       This show is not "real life," make no mistake about it. This is a contrived, unrealistic premise, throwing these people together in an exotic setting, yet competing in---make no mistake about this---a race for $1 million. However, the editing carefully crafts a living soap opera with all of its character conflicts and aberrations. Last I looked, soap still works in daytime. Here, you see some of the worst personality traits, the backbiting, the backstabbing, the conspiracies all erupting because, deny though they may, these people are still going for $1 million. They just aren't sitting in bar stools or isolation booths.
       If there is a tip of the cap here, it's to the music composer of Survivor. Sure, it's occasionally hokey, too, and arguably a bit heavy at times. However, the score paints a terrific mood and, without it, Survivor would be a dry PBS documentary.
       So that's what I think of Survivor. I'll be your loyal journalist and cover it and supremely understand why the show is a big summer favorite. Further, we're about to be bombarded by so many more clones than Millionaire had this past year, we're going to be sick of them. And we've only heard of the network pilots, so far. Wait until syndication gets into the game.
       However, I have a message for Les Moonves: while I watch your show, I'm holding my nose just like you did when WWTBAM became a megahit. By the way, Les, whatever happened to your great love for "scripted entertainment?"

       POST-GAME NOTES: Another note on the What's My Line? pilots: at one point, a contestant came out to Harry Anderson's call to enter and sign in, please and had no chalk, fingernail, or paintbrush to sign in....This has been the "week of the deal." So many of these game show or "reality game" deals are going down as defensive buying. The networks do not want to see a pilot pitched their way potentially competing against them....The best idea of the Survivor knockoffs I've heard: The Runner, and with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon behind it, it may well be a hit. The absolute worst: Chains in Love. If Scott Sassa and NBC put that one on, Sassa goes down as the network exec with the biggest double standard in history....The only way WML? will have a chance for sales in syndication in 2001 is if To Tell the Truth is successful this fall and the last two tries at TTTT have not been....Chalk another one off my list: Don't Forget Your Toothbrush. I don't care if it is Comedy Central, which has no standards and practices of any kind, the game Mark Curry had a female contestant named Courtney play Tuesday night was worse than vulgarity. You'd have heard major howls if that same game was played with four women and a male. Further, that game was not necessary for the show to be entertaining. The producers know it, too....The Millionaire rerun ratings are proof positive how the game has a lot more legs than people anticipated. I'd talked to some critics who thought WWTBAM's ratings would be cut in half for the encores. Didn't happen....The q-and-a format is far from dead with the decision of ABC to go forward with two more games, including You Don't Know Jack!. However, a number of potential contestants are genuinely disappointed at the network's decision not to proceed with Mastermind....I'll have more on this later but I can't tell you how pleased I am for my broadcasting students to establish The Tom Kennedy Broadcasting Scholarships. This is an honor for not only the master emcee but one of the nicest people around anywhere. Tom wouldn't fit in on the island off Borneo for that very reason.

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