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August 25, 2000

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Are We Already Headed for Survivor Burnout?

       Is it just me....or am I sensing some early signs of premature burnout of the Survivor steamroller? It's one thing for CBS to milk its biggest success since the end of M*A*S*H. It's another to keep equating everything on the schedule, including affiliate local newscasts, to Survivor.
       No question CBS is going to have a big gap for the next five months in its lineup. Big Brother definitely isn't going to fill it. Not one of its new series, despite some promising possibilities, will come close to sustaining the mania.
       However, while still recuperating Friday morning, I flipped the dial on a couple of CBS stations and you'd think the show was still on----almost to nausea. Promo for Miss Teen USA looked just like the weekly Survivor spots. Promo for As the World Turns: "the story of island survival continues..." Lead-in on a news story on an Atlanta CBS station two days after the finale: "The rescue is a true Survivor story." Lead-in on a news story on KCBS/Los Angeles: "In this case, no one had to be on an island to be a 'survivor.'"
       Between now and early October, we'll see half the cast turning up on assorted network entertainment shows, the entire series will be repeated as counterprogramming to the Olympics (and will perform better than anything CBS would throw in opposite) and you won't be able to escape the gang in magazines, newspaper ads, or TV commercials. At the rate we're going, my worst nightmare may be realized: Sue Hawk may be selected to replace Kathie Lee with Regis. Second thought, my worst nightmare is to see Sue Hawk, period!
       My old Georgia compadre Jim Blalock has studied these marketing phenomena for years. He believes there is genuine danger of an early backlash. "A lot of these people, if they don't have good advice, are going to try to snap up as much endorsement money as they can very fast," says Blalock, "and run a real risk of overexposure very quickly." Blalock likens some of it to the Mark Spitz factor after the 1972 Olympics. Spitz had won seven gold medals in Munich and suddenly, he was on everybody's list. "You saw Mark Spitz presenting at the Oscars, Mark Spitz with a Schick contract, Mark Spitz on every talk show, Mark Spitz as a sports commentator," says Blalock. "Turns out Spitz was a guy with matinee idol looks and a personality which didn't match. He was out of sight within a year."
       Blalock also points out most of these people are not trained professionals. "In one respect, that makes them the darlings of the media because they are all fresh faces. That works in the short term," says Blalock. "But most of them come from extremely non-public walks of life and the success curve is ultimately going to catch up with most of them.
       Blalock contends the image makeover for Richard Hatch was probably in the works well before the final episode was shot. "Supposedly, he's the only one of the 16 who still doesn't have professional representation but I don't buy that," said Blalock after Wednesday night's reunion special. "Yet, somebody did some coaching to so quickly try to change him into a warm and fuzzy, caring human being from the man America wanted to fall flat on his face. Getting rid of the beard. Focusing on the weight loss. Haivng a more pleasant smile. The signs are all there. There are some parties which have a vested interest in Hatch being a likeable guy. However, don't bet on this being a lasting image. He's going to have a difficult time overcoming, over the long haul, the remembrance of being a pretty despicable character."
       Just to show you how my prediction of the local news emphasis materialized, Thursday afternoon for WREG's 5:00 broadcast in Memphis, reporter Jamey Tucker's story with me analyzing the impact of Survivor and future trends led that half-hour's newscast. Jamey didn't make that decision. Yet, his producer did at a time when a major two-alarm fire which ultimately destroyed a landmark church in Memphis was in progress. Survivor analysis over the emotional loss of a church? That's where it is, folks.
       I'll tell you the key points I told WREG: I wasn't surprised at all at the success because this was a game show produced as if it was an action-adventure series with movielike qualities. Most of the audience had never seen anything like it. Yet, as one who teaches at a university which stresses vision and values, as well as the pure subject matter of the classroom, I am distressed at the values this show has sent to America. Not that it's terribly different from much of the values of Hollywood entertainment of the last 20 years. What it says is if you're the best at lying, cheating, deception and manipulation, you have a better chance at being a winner than having integrity or being a decent human being.
       I'll go back to some of my early thoughts on this show. Look who the first one exiled was. A woman who has probably survived more----a major bout with cancer----than the other 15 put together. Look who the second one was gone---a guy who had an old-school work ethic which didn't jive with a group of younger people. Look at the one who was the most skillful and athletic and held to her integrity when confronted with joining an alliance. Gretchen Cordy was sent packing.
       Yet, the people who displayed a ton of valueless qualities were among the majority at the end. I almost had to call for a roll of Tums when Hatch dared to suggest he hoped his fellow castaways would recognize him for "playing as ethically as I could." This guy rewrote his own definition of ethics in a dictionary I've never read and never hope to buy. He's the last guy I ever hope to have as an example of ethics for my children or students. Sue Hawk's "snake-and-rat" soliloquy could go down as a pilot for a new series called Championship Whining. I haven't heard such crocodile tears on television since Ed Marinaro (yes, the same Ed Marinaro from TV) whined publicly when he lost the Heisman Trophy to Pat Sullivan of Auburn in 1972.
       However, that's the way you play Survivor and if Hatch's template is followed, this series will have a succession of unpopular champions. The biggest temptation this congregation will have to avoid now is how to guard against an overexposure one can surely already see oncoming. They've been thrust into a spotlight arguably none of them expected, any more than America expected a revival of the quiz show last summer. As quickly as they've become stars and America's darlings, they can just as quickly become America's castoffs.

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