One of the questions that comes up from time to time in the Survivor fandom is why the show’s UK version was such a failure. So many reality shows have done well in the UK, and Survivor has its roots in that country, so how is it that the franchise can thrive in so many different countries, but flop in Mark Burnett’s motherland?
I can’t claim to have the definitive answer to this, but unlike most modern Survivor fans, I was resident in the UK when the reality TV phenomenon took off. I watched the UK version of Survivor when it originally aired, so I can give you the historical context.
In other words, I’m ripping off the Survivor Historians though A: Mario, Jay, Paul, and Mike have nothing to fear from me when it comes to job security and B: Mario and Jay completely murdered the answer to this question in one of their feedback podcasts years ago, so they only have themselves to blame. (Well, themselves and the listener who thought two Americans could explain what was happening on British TV at the turn of the century.)
“Big Brother is watching”… and so were we.
Let’s start with one of the many good points the Survivor Historians have made over the years, that Survivor might not have been nearly as long-lived had Richard Hatch not won the first season. It was an insane phenomenon long before he won, but at the end of the day, the moral of Survivor: Borneo was that Survivor was a game and needed to be played accordingly. At the time, the viewers considered alliances to be cheating and they were rooting for Pagong to somehow eke out a win against the Tagi four, but had that come to pass, would Survivor now be on the verge of airing its 32nd season while preparing to film 33 and 34? Furthermore, Survivor launched the reality TV phenomenon in the US, so in a very tangible way, Richard Hatch’s game ended up defining the whole genre.
Or at least it did for the States. The American version of Survivor never aired in the UK. Instead, our reality phenomenon in the summer of 2000 was Big Brother. Like Survivor did in the States, it generated a lot of buzz as a “social experiment”. That was the year I graduated university and the main thing I remember was that my psychology-studying flatmate couldn’t shut up about it. Like many Brits, I didn’t start out watching the series, but with the evictees doing the interview rounds in the media, my curiosity got piqued. I started tuning in, and by the finale, I was invested enough to cast a vote. (My guy came third. Sounds about right.)
One specific incident gave the series a higher profile, and that was when a player broke the rules. The precedent set by the European versions of Big Brother was that although housemates would nominate each other for eviction, they were not allowed to discuss these nominations (and, of course, the viewers phoned in to say who would actually go home). The idea was to prevent contestants from voting tactically so that the show’s story would unfold organically.Dead grandma? How quaint.[/caption]
Enter ‘Nasty Nick’. Nicholas Bateman was a good looking, young insurance broker, with all the posh tones of his private education—certainly not an everyman that the Great British public was supposed to warm to. If he was cast as the bad guy, he gave production more than they could have dreamed: everything from cigarette-poaching to a fictional dead wife. As a Reality TV villain, Nick was years ahead of his time. Outraged viewers were dying to vote him out, but the housemates weren’t giving them the chance; they had fallen for Nick’s lies and not one of them would nominate him for eviction.
Then Nick overreached himself. Although contestants were forbidden writing material, he had smuggled a pen and paper into the house. Ahead of nominations, he started writing names down and showing them to other players. Eventually, one of the nominees, Craig Phillips, conferred with a few other players, discovered that Nick had been playing them against each other and confronted him at a house meeting where the whole house turned on him. Later that day, Nick was ejected from the Big Brother House for rule-breaking.
I don’t know whether production wanted to get rid of their most infamous character—it seems likely that they had been turning a blind eye to Nick’s notes—but with several housemates confirming that Nick had breached the rules and all of them outraged, they had little choice. Still, while Nick’s downfall might have come about earlier
than they might have wished, the execution was perfect. In Survivor terms, this was the equivalent to Pagong regaining control over the game by getting Richard Hatch disqualified for his cheating Tagi Four alliance. It was exactly what the audience wanted. Roll over, Colleen, because Britain’s Sweetheart has stubble and a scouse accent.
From the ashes of Nick’s white-collar villain, Craig, the builder from Liverpool, emerged as a blue collar hero. The housemates weren’t overly grateful to him for leading the charge against Nick—Craig was nominated every week from that point until the finale—but the Great British viewing public weren’t letting him go anywhere until they could crown him as the deserving winner. Craig then proceeded to cement his status as Most Beloved Man on Television by donating his winnings to a friend in need of a heart and lung transplant. He went on to enjoy modest fame and considerable fortune as a celebrity builder.
The legacy of Craig’s victory was a sense of social responsibility in how the show’s fans voted: winners were often crowned in symbolic acceptance of their demographic and would include two transgender contestants and a man with Tourette’s syndrome. Meanwhile, the internet argued about what the statistics on who survived evictions told us about the UK’s attitudes towards race and gender (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t good.)
In 2010, the original series of Big Brother finished its run (before moving to another channel) with an eighteen day All-Stars version of the show, Ultimate Big Brother. Nick returned with a new strategy, earning himself the moniker “Not So Nasty Nick.” This time, he lasted all eighteen days, though this milder performance only rated fifth place. I was in the States by that point, so I can’t comment on his performance, but perhaps he would have been better served sticking to his villainous roots?
I need to acknowledge two other factors in Big Brother UK’s runaway success story. One was the host, Davina McCall, who moved seamlessly from frenzied enthusiasm for the live eviction to an easy rapport with the week’s boot for the subsequent interview. Props also to Marcus Bentley, who narrated each episode—if Davina became the face of Big Brother, Marcus was the instantly recognisable voice.
Secondly, and crucially, was the financial success of the voting. Big Brother smashed the previous UK records for a TV vote, when 3.3 million people voted on the final eviction—and paid for the privilege of doing so. Unsurprisingly, phone companies took note and the next eight seasons were sponsored by one telephone provider or another. Channel 4, which aired Big Brother, was one of the smaller terrestrial channels, so for years, Big Brother was its flagship show, and the money it earned between phone and advertising revenue helped fund the channel’s more arthouse fare. (This 2006 article goes into more detailed speculation on Big Brother’s profits ahead of its seventh season.)
Finding the next Big Brother
The powerhouse of UK television was, of course, the BBC, and they had spent the year 2000 broadcasting the lesser reality phenomenon of the year: Castaway. A documentary rather than a gameshow, Castaway was a year long social experiment where thirty-six men, women and children tried to build a community on a deserted Scottish Island. Castaway had not changed the face of television in the way Big Brother had, but it had been well-received and produced one marketable celebrity in the charming Ben Fogle—a British Colby Donaldson, the kind of boy your mother wanted you to bring home.
The BBC’s main rival was ITV, and they entered 2001 determined to have their own reality success. It wouldn’t have taken them much research to discover that the American TV phenomenon of 2000 was a serendipitous combination of Castaway and Big Brother. In May 2001, four days before the second season of Big Brother premiered, ITV began airing its version of Survivor, promoting it as the original reality show.
From the first few minutes of the first episode, it’s clear how closely they followed the template of Survivor: Borneo. Eight men and eight women are marooned off the coast of Pulau Tiga, by their own bizarro Jeff Probst (that’s Borneo Probst, not modern Probst), with their own bizarro intro complete with music by Russ Landau. (Sadly, it’s no Ancient Voices.) While the Big Brother contestants had competed for a paltry £70,000, the prize money for Survivor would be a full million—almost half as much money again as the US version.
There were a few differences, most notably the decision to give Survivor multiple episodes a week as Channel 4 had done successfully with Big Brother. Every Monday the standard episode aired, with challenges and a tribal council. On Tuesday, viewers could watch Survivor Unseen which included bonus footage, an interview with the most recent boot, and (I believe) a psychologist giving their thoughts on events. Yet more content aired on Thursday. Survivor Unseen was presented by John Leslie, a known TV personality who was hoping to replicate Davina McCall’s success and become the face of the next TV phenomenon. Newscaster Mark Austin had been on location to fulfil narration and torch-snuffing duties, but it was John Leslie in his Tribal Council mock-up studio who was promoted as the host of Survivor.
About the show itself, there’s really nothing much to say—and that was the problem. I was particularly excited to watch because I was finally going to see what all the fuss was about. If you were a Brit online in the summer of 2000, it seemed as if every other English-speaking country was raving about Survivor. (It got old really fast.) Not only that, my parents were resident in the US and had become instant, massive fans.
Ready to join the Survivor fan club, I watched the show faithfully, yet I remember nothing except for Zoe Lyons’ post-boot interview, where she poked fun at her own blindside face. There were no big characters, no inciting incidents… The show’s vague equivalent to Nasty Nick got voted off first, and while Zoe did eventually forge a successful career as a comedienne, this was only after another few years of obscurity; she wasn’t a stand out on the show (though she was my favourite, which is probably the only reason I remember her interview.)
John Leslie failed to make an impact as the host—he had neither the verve nor bite of his rivals, and his lack of interaction with the players on the island diminished their rapport in interviews and deprived John of the opportunity to coin catchphrases like Big Brother’s Davina McCall’s “I’m coming to get you!” Instead, he was left to quote the stock phrases Mark Austin used on the island—themselves lifted from the American version rather than developing organically. None of them caught on with the public.
Ratings-wise, it was pulling in more viewers than Big Brother which was having a far blander season than its original (roughly five million for Survivor vs. four million for Big Brother), but ITV expected higher ratings than Channel 4 anyway and had predicted Survivor would pull in twice that number. Mid-season, they dropped the Thursday show and bumped Survivor Unseen to a late timeslot after the episode on Monday, in the hopes of putting a greater focus on Monday’s main event, but it didn’t work. I knew plenty of people who were watching the show, and I discussed it with them—we just didn’t have a lot to talk about. Mostly, we were trying to figure out what Survivor was providing that we hadn’t got from Big Brother or Castaway, and my friends seemed more invested in what was unfolding live in the Big Brother House than on a tropical island two months earlier.
The most sensational thing to happen in Survivor was a showmance between Charlotte and Adrian, but the editors chose to bury that storyline because Charlotte was both married and the eventual winner of the season (and had a name that rhymed with harlot as the tabloids quickly worked out). Conversely, Big Brother gleefully highlighted their own illicit romance between Paul and Helen. (Helen had a boyfriend outside of the house—or at least she did at the start of the season.) The viewing public raised disdainful eyebrows at Big Brother’s transparent hopes that two housemates would have sex on national television, but they adored the dippy Helen, and the whole saga reached a satisfyingly tragic climax when viewers were forced to choose between Helen or Paul for eviction a scant week before the finale.
Charlotte made considerably less impact outside of the tabloids, despite having a good underdog story on paper. So Survivor limped to its lackluster conclusion—not helped by the decision to have the finale start after the final three tribal council. It was hosted live by John Leslie, and the show padded the scenes of Charlotte and Jackie on their final day and final Tribal Council by cutting back to Leslie and guests giving their commentary in the studio. Yet ultimately, the question was: Which of the two most under-the-radar players would take home the million pounds? Answer: The one who’d had the affair.
Two days later, viewers decided which of the Big Brother fan favorites, Helen and Brian, to crown as its second winner; the public gave themselves a satisfied pat on the back after picking Brian, the first openly gay man to enter the Big Brother House. And Channel 4 only had to pay him £70,000. Brian didn’t miss out; he has been active as a TV presenter ever since, later became Big Brother’s only two-time winner, and replaced Davina as host when the show moved to Channel 5. (Yes, the UK really does refer to its channels that way.) Charlotte spent her million and went back to her old job as a police officer within three years. In that ultimate celebrity litmus test, she does not rate a Wikipedia page of her own.
Survivor won the battle of the ratings with Big Brother, but lost the war. Reviews were mixed, but there was more of the bad than the good. Still, enough people had faith in the format for ITV to give it one more chance, and a second season was confirmed in October 2001.
Rather than running in parallel with Big Brother again, the second season of Survivor aired from March until May 2002. Neither John Leslie nor Mark Austin returned; instead, cricket presenter Mark Nicholas took over hosting duties, both in the game and for a post-boot interview with each contestant. The number of contestants was dropped to twelve (more in line with Big Brother numbers) and while there was no way to let viewers decide the eliminations, the public did get a jury vote. Six jurors cast a vote on location, and the viewers called in their own preference for the seventh vote ahead of the finale.
However, it didn’t matter. I literally have no memory of this season. I assume I never watched it—I’m not even sure I knew it was on at the time. It aired so late in the evening that it was never going to get good ratings, and Wikipedia speculates that ITV was simply fulfilling contractual requirements at that point.
Why had ITV given up on Survivor between October and March? Two words: Pop Idol.
Before Survivor, ITV’s first bite at the reality apple had been Popstars, a New Zealand import where every week a panel of judges narrowed down a field of hopefuls to form a new five-member band. Viewers liked the show, but the eventual band, Hear’Say didn’t hold their attention. Simon Fuller took that format and added Big Brother’s public vote and sole winner (plus Simon Cowell) to create Pop Idol. It was a resounding success, pulling in 10 million viewers weekly, with a record-smashing 8.7 million people voting for the winner in February 2002. ITV simply didn’t need Survivor anymore.
Simon Cowell’s The X Factor (also on ITV) superseded Pop Idol in the UK after just two seasons, but the concept continues to be exported to other countries, giving the world everything from American Idol to Cambodian Idol. Meanwhile, in August 2002, ITV finally found a successful adaptation of the Survivor format with I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! There were many changes, but most crucially, this series aired as it was filmed, and viewers were able to dictate the fate of the contestants.
In the US, of course, this trend happened in reverse. It was Big Brother that was revamped to match Survivor’s format, and CBS’ juggernaut affected the way people viewed even such disparate reality shows as Idol. Years later, when I first started visiting Reality News Online, I remember reading one of David Bloomberg’s American Idol recaps and being totally bemused by his discussion of voting strategies for the viewer, such as the danger zone of the week– you assume your favorites are safe. Perhaps America’s capitalist mentality also plays a role in this cutthroat outlook, but I give the main credit to Survivor as played by Richard Hatch.
My Journey to Enlightenment
Such are the facts and figures, but what I remember taking away from UK’s Survivor was this: tactical voting results in boring people advancing while the stronger players and bigger personalities get voted off. There was just no way you could get a satisfactory show unless you had the viewers choosing who stayed on their screens. At least with Big Brother, you were bound to have somebody to root for (and against) in the finale. The fact that my US-resident parents remained avid Survivor fans reinforced my conclusion that it was a deeply silly show, and it became a filial tradition of mine to roll my eyes every time the subject came up.
Then ten years ago, my husband and I moved to the States and in with my parents who, needless to say, retained control over the television. I had no choice but to watch the upcoming season, Survivor: Panama — Exile Island. Ahead of the premiere, I sat next to my mother as she watched Jeff Probst’s cast preview on The Early Show, and I thought to myself: “Well, good for Cirie, getting up off the couch and trying out this adventure. I hope she doesn’t get voted off too soon.”
The rest, I should say, is history.