While Survivor's current popularity and Jeff's renewed enthusiasm for the show should see it lasting for many more seasons to come, could it have an extended future in a different format once CBS pulls the plug? In today's feature article, New Zealand Ozlet Nick Chester takes a look at whether or not Survivor could work as a Netflix show. Continue reading to find out the pros and cons of such a partnership.
There’s no denying that the face of TV has changed dramatically since Survivor first appeared on screen in mid 2000. The easy availability of TV shows online, from both legal and illegal avenues has forced producers to re-think how they present their products to audiences. We as consumers of TV have become more accustomed to watching shows “on demand”, without advertising and through a variety of devices. Those of us living outside the United States have also had a desire to see their favourite show on the same schedule as it is shown there. The ready availability of TV shows on DVD and through downloads has meant people can catch up on shows more easily and “binge watch” (yes, you are bingeing, not having a “Breaking Bad marathon” – this terminology is insulting to people who actually run real marathons). One of the more interesting parts of this TV revolution has been the advent of Netflix shows. Unlike a regular season which will play out over the course of anywhere from 10-22 weeks, Netflix will deliver an entire season at the same time, leaving it up to viewers to determine the speed at which they watch. Shows like House of Cards, Daredevil and Making a Murderer have become instant favourites of mine, and the ability to blast through a few episodes in a night has added a new dimension to the viewing experience. There are of course drawbacks as well, and the gradual drawing out of a story over several episodes has a different feeling when all those episodes are consumed at once.
But how would Survivor work in this format? It seems pretty clear that our favourite show isn’t going anywhere for a while – viewer ratings are steady, and Jeff Probst seems comfortable to continue in his role as executive producer and host, so there seems no reason for CBS to ditch it in the foreseeable future. But there is no doubt that Survivor has surpassed all expectations and eventually, something will change and CBS will make the decision to move on. This show with such a loyal fan base could continue on with a cable company picking it up and producing it. If this happened to be a Netflix type of show, just how would a season like this work? How would our viewing experience change, and would it be for the better? Please feel free to step through the looking glass into my alternative universe and consider the options before us.
Survivor’s Survival and the Future
As season 32 rapidly approaches us, it’s worth noting that the most watched season of Survivor was season 2. For those superfans who struggle with basic math, that’s 30 seasons ago, or 15 years. The fact that Survivor is still on and as popular as it is is nothing short of astounding. The Australian Outback averaged 30 million viewers a week – now the show gets 9-10 million. However the landscape of TV has changed entirely since 2000 when Survivor first aired. Sitting down to watch a show at a scheduled time in the evening is becoming less and less common, with devices that can record shows through series links, or with episodes going online and able to be streamed at any time after their initial screening. People are less tied to their TV schedules and can fit these things around their lives. We also watch shows through a variety of mobile devices and are not tied to the couch. This has created new challenges for TV networks, as viewers no longer have to sit through commercials. The idea of 30 million people sitting down every week to watch a TV show now is unlikely, and therefore shows that can find ways to attract audiences to continue following the show are going to be more successful. It has to be said that Survivor, at its heart simply has a great premise, and whilst a bunch of twists have changed and mutated the show into something entirely different from how it started out, at its heart it is still the same show, and this keeps loyal fans coming back time and time again.
Survivor also has the distinct advantage where the players (and to a lesser degree, the host of the show) interact with fans online through social media. This gives fans a more immersive experience. There is also now a thriving fan community through a variety of podcasts, facebook groups, reddit pages and ORG’s to ensure the fan community is strong and continues to discuss pretty much every section of the show. This makes Survivor a pretty sure-fire thing. As long as the resources continue to go in to make the show look and feel great, the fans will keep watching, discussing and interacting and keep Survivor as a staple. It’s hard to imagine that CBS will want to change this anytime soon. But eventually Jeff will want to retire, or CBS will want to move away from the show and it will end. I personally can’t see it for at least another few years but it will happen sooner or later. What will be interesting is to see what becomes of the franchise once CBS and Jeff have had enough.
Would You Pay?
One of the great aspects about Survivor is that of course it is on a major network and not a cable provider – so its free to watch, and ends up getting sold to free to air providers around the world. In my theoretical world where CBS sells the rights to a cable provider, how many would follow? My feelings are that as long as there was a decent budget behind it, Survivor is still viable. The famous comparison of Survivor to pizza is remarkably true, and the great strength of the show is that at its heart, the premise is so strong. Survivor may have spawned a host of bastardised reality TV rip offs in the years that followed the success of the original season, as everyone tried to capitalise on this relatively cheap form of entertainment, but without strong premises, shows died a natural death, leaving the perennial hits to continue. Survivor as a premise is still fantastic and there is no reason to think that it couldn’t continue. The fan base for the show seems to be very strong – Fans of Survivor seem to be very loyal, and I think most would follow it to a pay service if required. As a comparison, Game of Thrones has around 6-8 million viewers a week on HBO – compared to free to air’s Survivor at 8-10 million. As a quick aside, Game of Thrones to me is one of the most overhyped and underwhelming shows on TV today. The amount of media attention it gets far exceeds its actual quality – so to me, even for a cable provider, 8 million viewers seems phenomenally low. But Game of Throne’s production budget is around $60-$80 million per ten episode season. Although probably a bit of an underestimate, figures I have seen indicate that a Survivor season may cost around $15-20 million a season to produce, depending on various issues. This would seemingly make Survivor an attractive prospect to a cable provider – a cheap show to produce in comparison to others, with a built in loyal audience which means they wouldn’t need to build a base of paying fans to start with. Product placement may be harder to integrate into the show, but I think most fans would see this as a good thing for the show anyway! I imagine that the rights to purchase Survivor and produce it elsewhere might still be costly, but I really have no idea what that figure might be so its hard to know if its a stumbling block or not. So this unknown issue aside, if CBS did ever drop Survivor, the economics could easily work for a cable provider to pick it up.
To Binge or Not to Binge
Of course, a cable network or Netflix provider are two very different beasts and I guess I am more interested in how the show might work in the latter format. Netflix and Hulu are rapidly growing in terms of subscribers and its easy to see why. Netflix has started to produce a number high quality shows but also pick up the rights to cancelled shows from other networks. The “on demand” nature of their product makes it accessible to people of all types of lifestyles.
As anyone who has sat down with a boxset of an entire season of a newly discovered show can attest to, it’s hard to stop at one episode. Like your favourite artery clogging snack, it can almost be impossible to stop devouring until it is all gone. It can also leave you with a bloated yet empty (and even slightly guilty) feeling inside. This binge watching of a show can be great if you have no patience, or not a lot of commitment to a 14 week show, but it can also have a detrimental effect on your enjoyment as a fan (or your performance at work the next day). Whilst binge watching TV can be dangerous to your work or social life, having that level of investment in a show has to be a good thing for producers. It shows that the audience are engaged – in fact so engaged they don’t want to stop watching until they know how it ends. Some fans of Survivor will tell you that ultimately, it doesn’t matter how the season ends or who wins, but to me, this is the very reason we watch – to find out what happens next. My personal Survivor watching history involved a period of a year or two where real life took over and keeping up with the show wasn’t a priority. I have watched a couple of seasons in retrospect, and in a short window of time and it certainly is a different viewing experience. Personally I don’t know how I would watch new episodes of Survivor if given the opportunity to binge, but I feel I am the type who would just want to burn through it and would find it hard not to watch right up until the end – and there are many people who I imagine feeling similar. I was able to pace myself with House of Cards – largely because whilst I like the show, I am not invested in it to the same degree as I am with Survivor. I have found watching one episode a day was quite a reasonable speed to burn through a season, and still take everything on that was happening. Any more than this and it felt like I was simply watching just to find out what happened next – which is a repetitive cycle right up until the end. I also have a bit of local experience to draw upon, as here in New Zealand, Survivor has been shown in a binge form – shown in one episode an evening for 3 weeks. It obviously is not a particularly popular show here as its shoved into an odd timeslot (5pm) but it makes for an interesting way to digest the show.
Another of my complaints with modern Survivor would be completely undercut with this model. Survivor’s incessant need to overhype the show through teasers for next week’s episodes means a lot of the big secrets get given away before the episode airs. The 3-3 tie vote in Blood vs. Water should have been one of the greatest episodes ever, ruined completely by production giving this away in commercials the whole week leading up to the show. Dropping a whole season at once would reduce this significantly. This would really help those who want to just watch the episode from being spoiled by the very people who should want to amp up the tension as much as possible.
However, the drawbacks of this type of viewing are significant. One of the great parts of being a fan of Survivor is the weekly digest of the episode, followed by various podcasts, blogs and exit interviews. If you have maybe been on holiday or otherwise behind by a week or two, it’s less likely you care about what the person voted off 3 weeks ago has to say, as events have moved since then and their thoughts are no longer as relevant. One of the most fun parts of watching Survivor is speculating what might happen next – simply watching episodes back to back takes this fun away. All of this is true for any drama show – scripted or unscripted. The difference is really that with Survivor, cast members come off the show each week and provide more information. This allows fans to get a better understanding of the show on a week to week basis – having the whole season available at once would mean a large degree of this was lost. Whilst Survivor is a drama show, it’s also a competitive one, and assessing week to week who has a shot to win and who doesn’t is a huge part of the fun. Losing that might just kill the very heart of the show entirely.
I also think the “feast or famine” type of entertainment might not be great for the fan base – part of the fun is that you spend time after the season unpacking and analysing how it ended, whilst enjoying a slow build-up to the next season. If two full seasons dropped in say September and February each year, a lot of the ebb and flow of build-up/breakdown of episodes would be lost, and that would be a shame.
There is also the massive risk of spoilers. Although I think various corners of the internet have developed a safe space to avoid spoilers, this would come at a huge risk if all of a sudden the winner was effectively known at the time of the season premiere. You would pretty much have to avoid social media (at least if you follow any Survivor pages or fan groups) until you had viewed all of it – thereby incentivising you to rush through, potentially missing a lot of the more subtle story arcs in a rush to not be behind the times or hear the outcome before you wanted to. I know some people like spoilers but for me they take away from the fun of watching for the first time – as stated above, the essential element is not knowing what might happen next.
And of course although not a huge deal, but how would the live finale/vote reveal and reunion work? For 29 seasons we have seen this play out in front of a live studio audience, and this wouldn’t be possible with a Netflix model. You could of course revert back to Borneo model of revealing the final votes on location, and have a reunion without an audience when all the cast got back home after filming, but one part of the reunion which is interesting to watch is how players react to seeing themselves on TV, having had time to decompress and reflect on the experience. I’m sure many people wouldn’t miss the reunion all that much, and in its current state its hard to argue with that, so maybe its a good thing. But I think most of us like to see the reunion as a way to cap off the season. It’s hard to see how it would work effectively in a Netflix model.
Conclusion – Is it Worth Seeing?
I have to admit I am still in two minds about my own idea! In this completely hypothetical scenario where Netflix takes on Survivor, there are so many benefits, but so many pitfalls, it’s hard to know what is preferable. The idea of having a whole season drop in one day is really interesting to me – the binge watching culture means we want it all and we want it now, as Freddy Mercury would say. There have certainly been seasons where all I wanted to do was see what happened next, and I have to say I would be very intrigued to see how a season with lots of twists and turns like Cagayan would play out in a Netflix mode. Similarly, there are seasons where I know who the winner will be weeks in advance due to editing, and watching One World on fast forward would probably have helped. I also think it could make re-watches more interesting, as a first watch is likely to be very quick with lots of important subtleties missed, only to be picked up on subsequent re-watches.
But overall I think the drip feed of an episode a week seems to work best in survivor’s case. We get a slow build of stories, which when well done produces a great ending and leaves us with lots to think and talk about each week. Having a high amount of content for a much shorter period of time just wouldn’t be as much fun. The buzz and excitement around during a season would be forever lost and as a fan of the show and someone involved in the online sphere of its existence, I would be sorry to lose that.
For me the verdict is that what we have works well. It’s not perfect and I think Survivor has reacted well with having more content online and making all seasons available on its on-demand app. Whilst I do think the status quo works best, it is fun to think how this model could work for the future of the show in a post-CBS world. Survivor on Netflix would retain the essential elements that make the show what it is, but the joy that comes with the week-to week fun of its airing would be lost, or at least replaced by something else entirely.
Do you think Survivor could work on Netflix? Is the show’s current delivery the best option? Let us know your thoughts below!
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