The lowest-rated season premiere ever. A show whose star makes Raj from “The Big Bang Theory” look like a ladies man. A producer whose own talk show just got the axe.
Can it get any worse for “Survivor: Caramoan”?
After more than 20 seasons of explosive tribal councils, name-calling, backstabbing, lying and just about every other social dysfunction, CBS’ perennial hit television show may be close to the edge of its own plank. After CBS stoked the show’s dying embers with a two-year extension, “Caramoan” got off to a bad start when its premiere garnered about 9.4 million viewers. The ratings picked up slightly the next couple of weeks, but the ship appears to be taking on water quickly because of a worn-out concept and a less-than-compelling cast of characters.
But before we attempt a fix, let’s examine just exactly how things went wrong.
Where to start?
How about with John Cochran, the Harvard law student/geek/nerd and self-proclaimed “Survivor” expert? Cochran dominates the air time and supposedly is the lead dog for the “Favorites,” but the poor guy couldn’t even remember to bring sunscreen. It’s likely he got invited back because the producers drooled over the sympathy votes he got from viewers during “Survivor: South Pacific.” But has there ever been a primetime show built around a guy who is less compelling than Cochran? It’s hard to imagine America tuning in en masse to see who survives a snoozing finale between Cochran and a couple of other under-the-radar players such as Dawn. The best seasons of the show have always revolved around strong competitors that were both physical and strategic (see Ozzy, Parvati and Boston Rob). There’s only one Johnny Cochran(e) worth paying to see play “Survivor,” and it’s doubtful he will be making a cameo any time soon.
And let’s not forget the other “favorites.” Who decided Erik, Dawn, Corrine, Brenda, and Andrea were “favorites,” anyway? The Tattooed Boy Wonder, Brandon, and Agent Triple Zero Phillip are the only two favorites with even remotely interesting story lines. Better to have brought just those two back as captains of the Hatfield and McCoy tribes and see which one would go all psycho on the other.
Poor casting aside, the “Fans” have major problems of their own. Who cast Shamar? The big, brawny ex-marine who spent months in the Iraqi desert but then got earholed by a couple grains of sand? Every season there seems to be one or two players who want to take their buffs and go home because island life is too “tough.” Nobody wants to see a bunch of lazy people sitting around camp. We need action. Is it really that hard to find 20 people out of the tens of thousands who apply who will come on the show and compete their butts off?
Of course, the ultimate blame lies with the show’s producers, who spend more time trying to regurgitate ideas for new challenges instead of redesigning the creative direction of the show. Maybe producer and host Jeff Probst is still hung over from the recent cancellation of his own talk show. Probst is talented and likeable, but he is like the ace coordinator who gets promoted to head coach only to find out a totally different skill set is needed. The last real innovation of the show came with “Survivor: Redemption Island,” and that was five seasons ago. Since then it has been just a variation on a theme. We already had Fans vs. Favorites back in “Micronesia.” The show is in need of a major creative shot in the arm if it wants to stay afloat after its current contract with CBS expires.
So what’s the fix?
Glad you asked.
Aside from jettisoning the show’s creative directors and starting fresh, there are a number of new ideas and concepts that could help. First, the show is too predictable. Divide into two tribes. Merge. Compete to the end. Same old story every season. What you see on camera is the producers’ attempts to disguise what is actually a forgone conclusion – that most votes are decided long beforehand. The strongest alliance that is established in the beginning usually prevails to the end when the closest three jockey for position. That’s why you see a lot of sitting around camp and doing nothing. A lot of the times the contestants know their fates before even going to the challenges or tribal council.
Forget about the merge. Keep the tribes separated until a merge into a Final Four – two from each tribe. Then let the fireworks begin. Neither tribe would know the others’ strategy, and it will be a mad scramble at the end to see who prevails. Whoever survives will be the one who adjusts and adapts the best in the last three days, not who made the best deal on Day 1. Alliances would only guarantee you the final two in your tribe. No more foregone conclusions or deals between players as to who will make it to the end. Put the element of surprise back into the game.
Casting also has to improve for the show to survive. Viewers aren’t developing strong emotions for players like Dawn, Erik or Corrine. In television, weak emotions usually mean weak ratings. “Celebrity Apprentice” figured out first that bigger names mean bigger ratings (even though I’m still trying to figure out who Dee Snider and Paul Teutul are). We’ve seen hints of this on “Survivor” in the past, with players such as Jeff Kent, Jimmy Johnson and others.
Here’s a better idea: The internet is awash with “Survivor” pundits, bloggers, commentators, critics, gossipers and strategists (including this one) who spend what could be otherwise productive time publicizing the show. These “experts” have spent years analyzing strategies, tendencies and game play. A tribe of experts such as ourselves could face off against a tribe of celebrities to see if we really are “experts.” Camplife among the experts would be more cutthroat than a bunch of Somali pirates dividing their booty. Imagine the interest and publicity generated among writers, bloggers, message board geeks and every other internet hack with a keyboard. That would definitely boost ratings. A season of “Experts” vs. “Celebrities” or “Athletes” or “Actors” or any other group recognizable to viewers would spark much-needed interest and perhaps save the show from being voted out by CBS.
And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the ghost of Johnny Cochrane.