'Survivor' helped TV reinvent summer

Wildly popular reality show spawned huge rating, scores of imitators

— "Survivor," which dominated ratings and pop-culture discourse, has changed the face of summer programming and breathed new life into network broadcasting.

ABC, NBC and CBS have long hung out a "gone fishing" sign during the hot weather months. Then "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" scored with viewers last summer on ABC, and CBS' "Survivor" picked up the tiki torch and ran with it.

"The summer is no longer the repeat season," said Stacey Lynn Koerner of TN Media in New York.

Although Fox has tried out new midyear programming for a decade, she said, viewers weren't conditioned to tune in, and the big three networks didn't follow suit.

Until now.

When wily Richard Hatch was selected by his fellow "Survivor" castaways as the $1 million prize winner Wednesday night, 51.7 million viewers were watching.

"Survivor's" 28.6 rating and 45 share of those watching TV during the period was far from the 60.2 rating and 77 share for TV's all-time leader, the "M*A*S*H" finale in 1983. But the performance was extraordinary in this age of multiple cable and satellite options.

"Last night was one of the most successful nights in the network's history," CBS spokesman Chris Ender crowed Thursday.

The network hopes to relive the experience with a "Survivor" repeat in September and "Survivor II: The Australian Outback," debuting after the Super Bowl on Jan. 28.

Copycats are lining up. A slew of reality series are in the works, including ABC's "The Chase" and "The Mole" and possible NBC contender "Chains of Love," about a woman chained to four prospective boyfriends.

When about 75 million people tuned in for the "Seinfeld" finale in 1998, observers said it might represent the last hurrah for broadcast TV. They were wrong.

"Survivor" reaffirmed broadcasting's ability to create a shared water-cooler experience in a high-tech world in which people find contact increasingly elusive.

It was reminiscent of television's early history in 1948, when Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater" would score ratings as high as 80, as people gathered in the homes of friends with televisions.

"There are very few opportunities for people to experience the same event all at the same time and be able to talk about it day in and day out," Koerner said. "People are looking to be connected."

Competition, not connection, was the rule on "Survivor," which dropped 16 people on a Malaysian island for 39 days and dangled a million bucks in front of them. Hatch proved the master of the island domain, outlasting finalists Susan Hawk, Rudy Boesch and Kelly Wiglesworth.

In a telephone news conference Thursday, a relaxed-sounding Hatch, who orchestrated an alliance that helped seal his victory, said he wasn't concerned that some viewers saw him as a conniving villain. "It's not who I am, and I'm really comfortable with how I played the game," he said. "It was a game, a really, really fun game."

The 39-year-old corporate trainer, who's gay, said he's glad to serve as a role model. The one-time 360-pounder who has dropped more than 100 pounds also shared his diet tips, revealed he had a post-island tummy tuck and said he's single but eager to date.


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