Even though "The Jerry Springer Show" and its ilk take the prize for sheer odiousness, the subtext of "Survivor" is worse. It lends a big-network, prime-time aura of respectability to the type of show that heretofore could only be found skulking around the syndication channels or the cable carriers. With "Survivor," CBS seems determined to jump in the mosh pit with Springer: "Pushes television to its limit," the show's ads proclaim. (If only they would promise us that this is the limit and it will never get worse!)
"WWF Smackdown!" and similar fare make no pretense of being anything other than noisy farce: Anyone can see through it. "Survivor" calls itself "reality programming," masquerading as a genuine situation with genuine folks-next-door. Of course, it's not: No one's going to fail to survive, and there's some controversy over whether the contestants are even uncomfortable, except when the camera is rolling. But "Survivor" seems at least related to reality. That gives it a hook power that pure stunts like the Springer show will never have.
So what message is "Survivor" sending us? Assume that bad TV is indeed harmless summer fun. Assume that the character-out votes are actual, not based on Q-ratings for popularity and staged by contractual agreement with the show's participants. That is, assume the "survivors" are really picking who leaves, and that each outcome really comes as a surprise to CBS. (This seems exceptionally unlikely. With tens of millions of dollars in advertising money at stake, a rational network would drop the characters that are Q-testing poorly and keep those who are testing well, to maximize viewer interest until the finale. In other words, if you seriously thought the woman in the bikini top was going to be sent home last night, you don't understand how ratings work.)
How very, very current.
Much of society--too much--seems to be premised on the notion that people should pretend to cooperate while actually scheming against each other, as our temporary citizens of Pulau Tiga do. But does the fact that much of society is selfish mean television should exalt this? There can be drama and competition without shafting. After all, on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," each person wins at least something--the drama involves who will win the most, not who will be cast aside.
"Ultimately, it's everyone for themselves," the teaser for "Survivor" declares. Bad grammar--"it's everyone for him or herself" is more correct--is the least of this sentence's problems. It's simply not true that in most circumstances, we're ultimately all in it for ourselves. Genuine cooperation makes life better (to say nothing of more pleasant) for everyone, whether in community, workplace, school, or home.
Not only do many religions and philosophies teach that we should genuinely cooperate with and help each other, evolving understanding of economics and game theory is coming to the same conclusion. (See the terrific book "Nonzero" by Robert Wright, which explicates this point in detail.) Market economics and concepts of the "invisible hand" are commonly misunderstood to mean that people ought to be selfish. What they actually mean is that people should follow their self-interest, which is an entirely different matter--since it's in our self-interest to have a world of genuine cooperation and caring.
In this respect, "Survivor" will slide still further downhill through the summer as the characters--excuse me, I meant real-life totally unplanned spontaneous participants!--inevitably focus more on forming alliances to toss each other overboard. In this, the show will mimic legislative maneuvering in the United States Congress, much of which boils down to "my coalition can screw your coalition." Probably the show's idiotic emcee will start dispensing seeming pearls of wisdom about how the contestants have no choice but to be brutally selfish.
In the real world, we do have a choice. CBS has structured "Survivor" around phony spontaneity and enforced selfishness because these are what the network hopes to promote: Television, like water seeking its true level, wants to drive everything to the lowest common denominator. But real people don't live in the "Survivor" pseudo-world; they live in a world where we can all mutually improve life by not scheming against one another and all end up ahead as a result. My 9-year-old, Mara Rose, had the misfortune of watching "Survivor" with me last night. "This show is so stupid," she repeated several times: "How can grown-ups act so stupid?" And she didn't mean the phony war paint or the halfhearted simulation of athletic contests. She meant the celebration of selfishness.