Reality Bites: Survivor’s Fall from Grace with Emmy Voters
July 10th, 2010
Anyone who watches Survivor could tell you that this year was its best in a very long time: blindsides became standard, immunity idols became common currency, and Russell (for better or for worse) introduced an entirely new way of playing the game. For fans of the show, it was everything you could hope for, combining the twist and turns of the best seasons with some of the players from those seasons with the “Heroes vs. Villains” structure of the Spring season. Overall, the year was definitive evidence that the Survivor formula is still capable of surprising us, and that twenty seasons into its run Survivor is still a viable reality series.
And so it may seem strange that, after experiencing one of its best years ever, Survivor was shut out of the Reality Competition series category at the Emmy Awards (although Jeff Probst is nominated again in the Host category, which he has won twice). This isn’t a huge surprise, really: after all, The Amazing Race has won this category for seven straight years, so it’s not as if one can expect a great deal of turnaround in terms of the nominees. However, Survivor hasn’t been nominated for the award since 2006, and I think the fact that it’s yet to be nominated again reveals something very interesting about the Emmy voters.
Primarily, it reveals that they don’t actually like reality television.
The Amazing Race has won this award for seven years because its premise is designed to capture the rush of world travel, which is something that most voters can very much understand. The series may be about teams of two working together (or bickering endlessly), and it may have challenges and the like, but it all seems predicated on the notion of traveling the world and experiencing things you’ve never experienced before, common human desires which the series enables. The best episodes of The Amazing Race, and the episodes which have won the show seven Emmy Awards, are those which show racers overwhelmed by their surroundings, taken in by the beauty or the history of their surroundings. The episode that The Amazing Race submitted for contention this year, for example, has the players crawling across a WWI battlefield while airplanes buzz overhead and explosions go off around them, and the episode ends with a married couple struggling with a difficult morse code task and crying in each other’s arms in the trenches. It’s not subtle, but it’s something voters can relate to, which is the real challenge for shows in this category.
What they love about The Amazing Race is that it doesn’t feel like a reality show. It’s actually somewhat risky for the show to show voters an episode featuring the use of the U-Turn, where one of the teams is forced by another to go back and do both parts of a task, but the show’s sympathy very clearly lies with the team who suffered as a result of the strategy: we end on Joe and Heidi crying in the trenches, a celebration of their efforts and their love for one another. Even when teams do get caught up in the “game” and its various attempts to create drama, it still boils down to two people who care about one another who get to take away some lessons about life and a great experience. In those moments, The Amazing Race doesn’t feel like a reality competition program to the same degree as some other shows, which is why it has won every single Emmy given out in this category.
The problem for Survivor is that it never has those moments where it transcends being a reality competition series, or more accurately the voters aren’t paying enough attention to notice those moments considering how rare they are within the series’ structure. Survivor is the “original” reality competition series, and to be honest I think that is its downfall: while other shows are reality competition spins on other forms of entertainment (singing, dancing, fashion design, cooking), Survivor is pure reality show, and I think voters look down on it for that. The show’s finest moments are the result of paranoia and manipulation, of secrets kept and promises broken, and while those make for a great reality show they aren’t a particularly pleasant window into humankind. The show doesn’t celebrate people trying hard or doing their best, it celebrates people who think up the most clever way to screw over their fellow competitors, or in Russell’s case how best to “beat the system” and get yourself ahead in the game. While racing The Amazing Race, contestants can sometimes lose themselves in the task, as they stop racing and start experiencing something (like crawling under barbed wire in that WWI reenactment) that they never thought they would experience; on Survivor, these moments are extremely rare, especially during these two seasons when the strategy of the game became the dominant factor (especially with the Heroes vs. Villains season, where the seasoned veterans were into strategy from day one).
The other nominees (outside of the Race) in the category have been the same since 2007 when Survivor first exited the category, and they represent what voters look for in a reality competition series. In the case of American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, it’s the glitz and the glamour of celebrity and media awareness; in the case of Project Runway and Top Chef, it’s the convergence of competition and skill which draws in viewers who enjoy how fashion (which seems alluring) and cooking (which seems familiar) are brought into the competitive arena. In the case of Survivor, though, there’s no sense that normal human behaviour is being harnessed here, as there is nothing natural about being deserted on an island and competing in various challenges. While there was a focus on self-reliance and dancer in early seasons (the night watches in Africa, for example), for the most part Survivor is no longer about surviving so much as it’s about playing the game of Survivor, which doesn’t have the same appeal for voters who don’t like reality competition so much as they enjoy competitive spins on reality.
And yet, The Amazing Race wins this category every year because it’s the one show out of the category which has elements of more traditional reality television. It’s the one series which follows “regular people” from various different walks of life, people who any voter could relate with as they experience the challenge of racing around the world. It doesn’t just celebrate young undiscovered talent, or chefs who have yet to make it big, or fashion school grads with a dream, or poor celebrities who don’t yet know how to dance: The Amazing Race celebrates the perseverance of humanity, and Survivor’s problem is that it celebrates the inverse qualities of the human condition. Where The Amazing Race celebrates regular people experiencing something exciting, Survivor celebrates regular people experiencing something almost threatening, which isn’t nearly as empowering for voters who aren’t half as interested in strategy as the rest of us.
For Emmy voters, I think Survivor has been demoted to the same tier as a show like Big Brother; while it remains a much more impressive production (Mark Burnett being Mark Burnett), there’s that sense that it’s “just a reality show.” And to be honest, both shows have suffered over time by how “inside baseball” they’ve become: the changes being made are meant to appeal to the existing fans of the show as opposed to a broader audience. In the case of Survivor, this has actually benefited the show creatively, as the series has rarely been better than it was this season in terms of delivering shocking tribal councils, intriguing gameplay decisions, and final votes which capture the inherent subjectivity of this game and how the members of the jury interpret the actions of the finalists. However, these are all parts of the game which appeal to fans of reality television, and the show’s quest to become the best version of Survivor it can be is only taking them further away from what Emmy voters are looking for.
It may seem unfair that a show which “originated” (in terms of American television) and continues to perfect the reality competition formula isn’t rewarded in a category celebrating the art form, but the reality (pun unintended) is that voters have little love for this particular genre of television. The category exists because they couldn’t ignore how popular it has become, and how important it is to the networks who pay to broadcast the Emmy Awards each year, and over time Survivor’s place as the original reality series has been usurped by shows which offer a more voter-friendly take on the genre. Perhaps when Survivor finally goes off the air the series will garner some recognition, but right now I don’t foresee a scenario when voters will be prepared to reward a series which so clearly defines the genre they’re supposed to be recognizing, an unfortunate circumstance which reflects the Emmys’ all-too-frequent hypocrisy.
- Probst’s Emmy wins might seem like a contradiction: if you accept my arguments that voters don’t like the series’ competitive reality elements, then how come Probst has won this category twice. I think it’s a “don’t hate the playa, hate the game” scenario: Probst has the most “important” role of any of the hosts, very clearly central to the final tribal council and his interaction with the players. The others hosts are either stuck in Master of Ceremonies mode (Seacrest and Bergeron) or fairly inactive (Keoghan and Klum) – what Probst does is unique, and so he stands out in that category in a positive fashion which Survivor does not.
- I will be interested to see what happens next year, when Donald Trump and Mark Burnett revive The Apprentice with an economic downturn subtext (although I doubt Trump is capable of being subtle enough for it to read as subtext): the show was nominated in 2004 and 2005, but after the original version was canceled in favour of the Celebrity version, the show lost a lot of its credibility, and I’ll be very curious to see if voters will consider it should it find success on Thursdays in the fall. My guess is no, but we’ll see how much backstabbing makes its way into the positivity of giving the unemployed a chance at success.
- This category is really suffering from a case of inertia: while many other categories saw some big shakeups this year, this category has had the same nominees since 2007 (when Top Chef replaced Survivor), despite Project Runway falling off in quality and despite American Idol having some pretty terrible seasons.