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Jewish World Review August 28, 2000 / 27 Menachem-Av, 5760

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg
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Consumer Reports

Sitcoms will survive, post-"Survivor" -- AS PRETTY MUCH everyone in the world knows by now, the really annoying and scheming gay nudist won the million dollars on "Survivor." As much as I can't stand the guy, his victory demonstrates reality-TV's appeal; things happen that no writer or producer would ever come up with. Which is sort of fitting, as CBS never thought this summer fill-in show would take off like it has.

"Survivor" is the highest rated series in television history. The show buoyed CBS' overall ratings and earned it $600,000 per 30-second ad. Not bad for a network millions of Americans forgot existed. But, despite what you may have heard, the world will not be forever changed because of it.

"Survivor's" success has led hoards of journalists and industry insiders to predict a flood of new reality-show programming. Already, NBC is rolling out "Chains of Love," which will feature men and women handcuffed together for days at a time. ABC's got "The Mole," where one person spies on friends. And, of course, CBS has "Big Brother II" and "Survivor II" in the works.

The benefits of these programs are obvious. They're cheap and, well, they're cheap. "This is the perfect talent," director Albert Brooks said of "Survivor" on ABC News. "You get them for nothing, they sign their life away, they make complete fools of themselves, they do their own stunts, and you only have to pay one out of the 12."

Indeed, Hollywood sitcom scriptwriters and directors are reportedly terrified that they will be put out of business like the buggy-makers of yore. A writer for USA Today warns that "If the public's thirst for this newfangled form prompts still higher ratings the decades-long programming dominance of sitcoms and dramas might end."

First of all, who cares? Next year the four major networks will air 31 sitcoms, five fewer than this year. Will you miss those lost four shows? Even if the number of reality shows explodes, it's doubtful we'll ever see the number of weekly sitcoms drop lower than 25. The republic will endure.

More to the point, the predictions are almost guaranteed to be wrong. It seems television is entering a "new era" every few months. For years, the conventional wisdom held that night-time game shows were dead. Then came ABC's cash-cow "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Suddenly, the experts were convinced that such shows were the future of TV. The other networks followed suit with their own game shows like "Greed" and "Twenty One," but they've fizzled for the most part.

Before the "Millionaire" hysteria, there was the TV newsmagazine frenzy. For a while it seemed like you couldn't turn on the TV without seeing Jane Pauley or Diane Sawyer bleating about fireproofing your kids or how to tell if your gas station is ripping you off. There are still too many of these programs, but the idea that Americans wanted wall-to-wall consumer reports and true crime has long since been dispelled.

Television has a way of surprising you. Until "The Cosby Show" came along in the 1980s, network executives believed the sitcom was a dead or dying format. After "Seinfeld" ended, The New York Times ran a front-page story about how the networks were going to evaporate from the competitive heat of cable. "I don't think even a 30 share is possible for any show again," a senior network executive told the Times in 1998. The final episode of "Survivor" received a 44 share (meaning that 44 percent of people watching TV at that hour were watching the show).

Viewers like quality. That's why copycats usually do poorly. Yes, there will be a pile of new reality shows --- nothing new there anyway, what do you think "Candid Camera" was? But most of them will, in all likelihood, flop - just like eight out of 10 sitcoms flop. The real lesson is that competition works. The more networks there are, the more they have to fight for eyeballs. This makes risk-taking a requirement for success.

The best example is Fox, which throws out tons of awful shows. But amid the swill, a few gems emerge (and, alas, Fox sometimes cancels them, too). "The Simpsons" was actually born as film shorts on an old-style comedy and variety show. The idea of putting a cartoon (the ultimate unreality show) in prime time seemed vastly more insane than running "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

"The Simpsons" is now the longest running show on television, and still one of the best. I doubt Homer Simpson (or the writers behind him) feel threatened by "Survivor." In fact, I bet Homer would like the show and its winner. As he once told his wife: "Marge, I like my beer cold, my TV loud and my homosexuals flaming."

To comment on JWR contributor Jonah Goldberg's column click here.


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