Sink or swim
Reality TV - Malcolm Clark on why the British public has switched off Survivor
In 1975, the movie Rollerball imagined a 21st-century society dominated by gladiatorial TV game shows. For a time recently, this dystopic vision began to seem a harbinger of things to come, as participants in "reality TV" fests were set ever more elaborate tests of endurance. If they weren't grappling with food poisoning in Living in the Ice Age, or with Victorian cleaning products in The 1900 House, they were coping with psychological manipulation in Big Brother. Then came television's biggest turkey for a generation, Survivor (aptly named, given that it has been on a ratings life-support machine almost from the start), to restore our faith in both the taste of the British viewing public and the inability of television to drag it any further southwards.
ITV's target for Survivor was 12 million viewers, a figure it never came close to hitting. The ratings have been so poor - once or twice slipping below five million - that some nights ITV has recorded its lowest share of the prime-time audience for more than a decade, and now the programme has been herded into a later slot in the schedule. As for the gaggingly appalling "specials" devoted to profiling each ousted member of the cast for a full half-hour, these have been dropped - probably too many disturbances in care homes for the elderly.
It was all supposed to be so different. Survivor was the idea of the British production company Planet 24, when it was still owned by the gay couple Lord Alli and Charlie Parsons (proof, if ever it were needed, that gay men are not born with better taste), but it was sold first to the US, where it became a huge hit. This made the show the exemplar of the latest big noise in television. Broadcasters and production companies have been trying to convince investors that the television future is one in which viewer preferences in different countries can easily be overcome, allowing them to push products across an increasingly globalised international market. That is what happened with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. In fact, there's nothing new in all this - Wheel of Fortune was doing much the same in the 1950s. What's more, the failure of Survivor proves that national tastes remain stubbornly different from each other, and difficult to predict.
Almost everything that worked for Survivor in the US has worked against it in Britain. There are, for a start, those inane tribal rituals and names ("Ular" and "Helang", I ask you). In Britain, we tried all that 20 years ago with It's a Knockout, but that was for a laugh. You can't make a British audience take fake rituals and pompous flummery seriously. We have a monarchy for that, thank you very much.
The creators of Big Brother II - which, traumatically for ITV executives, is another huge success - realised that the tasks the housemates are set are really only a useful way of injecting some drama into the house, and offering insights into the personalities involved. In Survivor, the endurance tests are so physical, and so central an aspect of the programme, that they diminish the characters. The only thing we end up knowing about the people involved is whether they can eat maggots or hold their breath underwater. And who cares?
Then there's the much-vaunted exotic location. I suspect that the Americans, for whom a trip to Europe can bring on a cold sweat about potential malaria, were genuinely excited about the idea of the dangers of Sekutu Beach. But the British audience has worked out that it isn't exactly Kabul. Nor does it help that Mark Austin, the presenter, is constantly popping in, after a nice Chablis-laced lunch, to ask how things are faring. For some reason, too, when it comes to watching contemporary British people, we tend to prefer watching them in situations that are positively homespun.
The BBC discovered this to its cost when it tried to take the soap format to the Costa Brava, and the improbably named Eldorado quickly became a byword for unintentional humour. People in Britain, unlike in almost any other country of the world, prefer to watch their soap characters deal with life on the wrong side of the tracks, in pubs, East End turnings and farms with clippity-clop sound effects.
But Survivor's biggest problem of all, and the one that makes its failure so curiously uplifting, is its attitude to money. With Big Brother, we can all relate to the desire to win £70,000, with the chance of a TV career as a sideline, at the expense of a few weeks locked in a house. In Survivor, the depths to which people are driven, the indignities they are willing to suffer, for the chance to win a million pounds, leave both them and us looking cheap.
I suspect that is why people have turned off. It's like Rollerball, after all. At the end of the film, the baying audience is silenced when James Caan walks victorious from the tournament. He has, by then, killed all the other participants in the game, and the audience has been forced to confront its sense of guilt. Now there's an ending for Survivor! Think of the ratings, boys.
What survives of Survivor is broadcast on Mondays at 9pm on ITV