Monday is here once again and we have another Survivor Oz Feature Article coming your way! Today, Ozlet, Lynda Phoa, takes a look at the history of Survivor in terms of ratings and how it has slowly declined over the twenty-seven seasons. Complete with graphs, (yes, we are classy here at Survivor Oz), Lynda explains how the ratings have faired for each season both in the U.S. and in Australia! It certainly makes for interesting reading especially when you learn about some of the more popular seasons that didn’t actually rate as highly as you might think! Don’t forget to get involved in the conversation by leaving a comment below.
Reality TV – A Bit of History
These days popular “reality television” shows consists of singing contests, from talent shows and cooking competitions, to the next top model. Socio-economic factors over the years introduced Big Brother, Jersey Shore and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, which are more documentary/reality-type shows following strangers or families, into this television genre. But going back thirteen to fifteen years, “reality television” were documentaries on wildlife or historical and current real-world issues you would only see on SBS (for those in Australia), or National Geographic (for those everywhere else). The one show that pushed the boundaries in the 1990s was The Real World which aired on MTV in the U.S. in 1992. In a Big Brother-like setting, seven to eight strangers from different races, religions and backgrounds were left in a house for months, (with no one being voted out). The show became the longest-running program on MTV and is credited to be the launching pad for the modern-day reality television genre.
Overview of Survivor and its popularity in U.S. and Australia
Survivor, created by Charlie Parsons and produced by Mark Burnett, started filming in March 2000. It was the first of many competition-type reality shows we now see on our screens today. Back then it was a new take on the genre and a risky move by CBS to take Survivor on. As a shock result, the premiere episode which aired in May 2000 brought in an average of fifteen million viewers; and in later weeks the show averaged between twenty-five to twenty-seven million viewers. The popularity increased over this new and exciting concept so that the final episode drew in over fifty-one million viewers, becoming the highest-rated Survivor episode in history and highest-rated American television episode during the first ten years of the twenty-first century. What a feat! Even with the steady decline in ratings over the past twenty-seven seasons, the show still has a loyal following in the United States and has been signed to at least season thirty.
As shown in the below table, the US viewership has steadied declined over recent years.
The table below shows the highest rated episodes for each season. The Amazon, Vanuatu, Caramoan and Blood vs. Water are the only seasons where the premiere/finale did not receive the highest ratings. (Take note Ozlet Noah, the highest rating Amazon episode was Joanna Ward’s boot! Read into that as you please!)
“Survivor is like pizza. Even when it’s bad, it’s good.” – Rob Cesternino
Survivor, (Borneo), was picked up by Channel 9 and aired in Australia a few months after it ended in the U.S. The show also became popular here, amongst the likes of local versions of The Mole and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which aired earlier in 2000. The anticipation and success of Survivor: The Australian Outback drew in more viewers and increased the show’s popularity so much that an Australian version of Survivor was soon in the works. Unfortunately, this version was formatted quite differently from the US version and did not rate well with fans and viewers alike, hence no further seasons were developed. A Celebrity Survivor was then picked up by Channel 7 and rated fairly well, but it still missed the mark of the American production. In relation to airing dates, Australia has been up and down, especially in the last few years with Channel 9 airing seasons a few months after it has ended in the US. This has contributed to the heavy decline to Australian ratings over the last six seasons.
Note: Marquesas is at 0 as it was not aired in Australia. Survivor aired on Channel 9 from Borneo to Micronesia, then Samoa to Philippines. Digital Channel GO aired Gabon, Tocantins, Caramoan and Blood v Water.
With the failed ratings on Channel 9 over the past two years, Caramoan and Blood vs. Water were picked up and fast-tracked to GO! with great fanfare! Weekly ratings were average, but certain episodes managed to scrape into the >200k mark; notably Malcolm’s use of Idols to vote Phillip out in Caramoan, (226k), and Ciera’s move to draw rocks in Blood vs. Water, (240k). The Blood vs. Water premiere drew in a forty percent increase from Caramoan’s premiere, with the help of popular returning players such as Rupert Boneham and Tina Wesson. There is still a decent following in Australia.
Summary of Ratings from Seasons 1-10
Growth and Peak of Survivor
The first ten seasons of Survivor are seen as the original or “old-school” seasons where other than winning the million, the focus was on ‘surviving’ the elements, along with the unavoidable social game. The locations were stunning and a major factor in these seasons, from the tropical islands of Borneo and Marquesas to the harsh realities of Africa, each season created its own obstacles to surviving the thirty-nine days.
Borneo set the precedent on how the game was played, involving alliances, backstabbing and the skills necessary to outwit, outplay and outlast. People struggled with the lack of food and water, but also showed guts and determination in the physically and mentally draining challenges. The Australian Outback had a ‘nicer’ social game (excluding the Kimmi vs. Alicia fight), but this was mainly due to the weather elements and the flooding of the camp bringing opposing tribe members closer together towards the end. The true personalities and environmental aspects drew in viewers and as shown in the table below, over the last ten seasons there has been a steady trend of viewers in the US, with the first two seasons skewed higher due to the extraordinary ratings incurred for the Borneo finale and The Australian Outback premiere.
“I think we did well, especially given the fact that out of forty-four million viewers, twelve million didn’t even watch the Super Bowl” – Mark Burnett on The Australian Outback premiere
Africa, Marquesas and Thailand experienced a successful run with an average of twenty-one million+ viewers per week. Thailand, considered one of the worst seasons amongst fans and even Jeff Probst, drew in more viewers on average per week than its two predecessors. The Amazon, which is considered one of the more popular seasons amongst fans, oddly dipped in ratings. For the first time since Borneo’s premiere, episode six of Amazon drew in an average of under seventeen million viewers. This quickly turned around and ratings soared back up to twenty-two million for The Amazon finale. The big surge in ratings came again when Pearl Islands aired. With shoe-stealing pirate, Rupert leading the charge, ratings each week were on average around the twenty million mark. Survivor had definitely met its peak in these first seven seasons, and when All-Stars aired ratings each week soared again. As shown on the “Seasons 1-10” table above, there was a large spike in viewership, with people interested to see all their favourites play again. For those in Australia, because Marquesas was replaced by “Australian Survivor” it was our first time seeing Kathy O’Brien and Rob Mariano. After all the hype and success of All-Stars, things died down a little and so did the ratings for Vanuatu. They were not terrible ratings, but there was a thirteen million difference between the highest rated episodes of both seasons. The last season of the first five years, Palau, brought in an interesting twist with twenty players starting the game, two not even making a tribe and ratings started out strong. It also included the most defeated tribe in Survivor history and for the first time a tribe of one, drawing people in. Palau finished off strong with twenty-two million tuning in to see Tom Westman take the mil.
As for Australian ratings in the first ten seasons, I could only get hold of accurate Palau figures, which averaged 1.3 to 1.4 million viewers per episode. This ensured its spot in the top twenty-five television shows each week. Back in 2005, these were great figures where the top ten shows would range between 1.5 and 2 million viewers (and there were only five free-to-air channels; now there are twenty plus). If compared to the US figures, I would take a punt and make the assumption that Borneo and The Australian Outback would have managed around 1.6 to 1.8 million. This might be a bit high, but I remember reading about Survivor in the Australian media and many of the castaways were featured in high-profile magazines here. The Aussie fan-base was obviously large enough to keep the series going on Channel 9 up to now.
Summary of Ratings from Seasons 11-20
Maturity and Slow, Steady Decline
The middle era of Survivor still focused on the survival element and exotic locations, but introduced a whole range of twists to the game, ranging from the Hidden Immunity Idol in Guatemala and Exile Island in Panama. These forced a more strategic game play side of Survivor and the social aspect became even greater.
Compared to All-Stars, Guatemala experienced quite a drop in viewers by about two million. As an early-to-mid season of Survivor it was not rated highly amongst fans. This may be due to the lack of bikini shots, not being on a tropical island like Palau, or the lack of on-air contestant interest due to the harsh environment. Still, the finale was able to rake in matching figures with Palau. Ratings gracefully fell again for Panama averaging sixteen million a week, and the finale wasn’t that much higher. The debatably popular Cook Islands had a slight drop overall, but its premiere episode rated highly due to the controversial ‘race twist’. Unsurprising to many Survivor fans, the heavily recruited Fiji dropped in numbers, but China pulled back with its stunning location and eclectic cast, gaining back numbers back up over fourteen million. And one of the biggest surprises on the graph was just how much viewership dropped between China and Micronesia. The season of first Fans vs. Favourites only raked in an average of thirteen point eight million in its premiere and slowly declined from there, averaging only twelve million per week. Seeing Micronesia is seen as one of the best seasons in Survivor history, it does not show in television rankings. I personally expected it to be up there with Cook Islands and China. Even more shocking is the increase in ratings for Gabon! The luscious green fields of Africa and kooky characters made this season popular. Tocantins dropped very slightly again, but remained within the twelve million mark. On to Samoa with the ultimate villain of Russell Hantz, this season raised people’s interests and brought in a finale rating higher than the three previous seasons at fourteen million. From here on Survivor remained around the average of twelve million for Heroes vs. Villains which had a fantastic premiere ranking, but dropped over the middle weeks. The Heroes vs. Villains finale had fewer viewers than Samoa, despite being many people’s ‘favourite’ season of all time.
In Australia, Samoa averaged 808,000 viewers per episode, which again is not bad for a series that has filmed nineteen seasons. Australia still had a loyal following and after two previous seasons on Channel 9’s digital channel “GO”, Samoa was highly promoted on 9 due to the Hantz factor. Aussie Survivor fans cheered again when Heroes vs. Villains came around, boosting figures up to an average of 1,084,000 per week. What can I say; we embraced the returnees far more than our American counterparts…
Summary of Ratings from Season 21-27
Decline and Possible Phase Out
A new era of Survivor dawned when Nicaragua aired at the end of 2010 and celebrations for the shows ten-year anniversary died down. The focus of these seasons was more on the strategic game play and certain characters who were lucky enough to be featured. If you didn’t make it far in the game, you hardly got a confessional, and if you did but were boring as batshit, you hardly got a confessional.
Season twenty-one to twenty-seven were dominated by returnees with only Nicaragua and One World made up of all new contestants. If you had already played Survivor once, twice of thrice you were a shoe-in for at least one of these seasons. Alas, Nicaragua had a tough start following up Heroes vs. Villains albeit featuring an eclectic cast of sorts, but still maintained good ratings. NaOnka Mixon was featured heavily throughout the season until her quit, whilst Kelly (Purple) Shinn was hardly shown at all and she quit on the same day. One quitter was rewarded with airtime, and the other received as much as airtime as Melissa McNulty in Fiji! Viewers started to lose faith with Redemption Island, where the focus was mainly on one person, the winner. Viewership dropped down to an average of eleven million per week and things didn’t improve for South Pacific. Ratings were still consistent though, and both Redemption Island and South Pacific finales were able to haul thirteen million viewers each. The big drop was with One World, where halfway through the season viewership dropped to under ten million per episode. The finale did not rate well compared to the previous three seasons, and One World was the first season to have an episode have fewer than ten million viewers since the birth of the show in 2000. Unsurprisingly, a spike in ratings occurred during Philippines with fan favourite Mike Skupin returning. Rated highly amongst fans, figures rose back over ten million over the course of the season, with eleven point four million tuning in to see Denise Stapley be crowned the winner. The second Fans vs. ‘Favourites’ dipped again and averaged nine point four million viewers per week, with only Malcolm using his two Idols being able to bring ratings over ten million for one episode. And finally the latest season of Blood vs. Water had a rise of one point five percent, due to the cast and dynamics of game play throughout the season it is seen as one of the best seasons to date! Ciera decision to draw rocks brought in almost eleven million viewers and the finale beat Caramoan’s by about ten thousand viewers.
“If a new show came out and had the ratings we had this season, it would be considered a hit,” “To be in that place in Season 27 is pretty phenomenal.” – Jeff Probst
Aussie viewership increased from Caramoan to Blood vs. Water and as long as GO keeps fast-tracking seasons they will keep us watching.
Survivor, where to next? How long can it last?
“I merely think the steady decline in viewers and buzz about the show makes one thing clear. The tribe (of TV viewers) has spoken… and they are ready to vote “Survivor” off their TV sets.” – Jason Evans, TV Blogger @TVFilmTalk
The cast of Blood vs. Water seems to have peaked interest in the casual Survivor fan once again, with big names like Rupert returning for a fourth time. The premiere episode drew in almost one million more viewers than the premiere of Caramoan and had strong ratings overall. Even so, there is no doubt ratings are slipping each season, so how long before it causes Survivor to stop production? It was recently announced that CBS will be airing Survivor up to season thirty in 2015, but how much longer can it go? Should the series finish with a high and end with an all-winners season, or does it have the capacity to endure another five to ten seasons? The problem with the latter is there would probably be more and more twists introduced and players having a fifth or sixth chance; the show may become tiresome and end up in a slump. The Blood vs. Water twist brought another element to the game and worked, but can these types of twists last every season? (Bring on Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty!) Who knows what the reasons will be if Survivor is axed; I can only think that very, very poor ratings, or if Jeff Probst decides to leave. At least we still have another year or so before we find out!!
In the months after Caramoan finished airing there were rumours about Channel 9 giving up the rights of Survivor, which brings on competition between the other two major networks, Channel 7 and 10. If they want people to stop watching the shows by other means, the network that picks it up needs to air Survivor on or close to the US airdate. That is what digital channel GO has been able to do recently, fast-tracking Caramoan and Blood vs. Water. And with Charlie Parsons recently hinting the possibility of a new Aussie version of Survivor we have more to look forward to! But of course, Aussies don’t really have a say in whether the show should continue as it is based on American viewership, so please to all you American Survivor fans, keep watching so all us Aussies and those around the world can enjoy it too!!
When will you stop watching Survivor? Can Survivor continue if the ratings remain steady? Comment below to let us know!