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Survivor: Youth Must Be Served

They're fat and happy over at CBS right now. Times are flush. Life is good. The reality game show Survivor has become an instant hit, the biggest thing to hit TV since Regis Philbin started pestering flustered trivia buffs for their final answer. Survivor is huge -- it's bolstered CBS's ratings, given the network a high-profile platform to promote its fall lineup and provided a shot in the arm during the normally humdrum months of summer.

Not coincidentally, Survivor is also shooting CBS right in the demographics foot.

It probably doesn't seem like that on the surface. Indeed, things could hardly be better for CBS and its hardy castaways. The show has trounced all comers, including the NBA Finals. Even Regis is giving Survivor a wide berth. What seems to be the problem?

Only this: the first person voted off the island was a 65-year-old California woman. Next to go was a 64-year-old Kansas City man. And in last week's third episode, Rudy, a 72-year-old former Navy SEAL, came within a hair's breadth of getting the boot. Once he's gone -- and really, it's only a matter of time -- the oldest person on the island will be 38.

Waxing the old people one by one is all well and good if your core audience falls squarely in the ages 18-to-45 demographic. But on CBS -- which makes its bones catering to the dentures-and-Metamucil crowd -- sending senior citizens out to the woodshed is tantamount to broadcast suicide.

Which is a shame really, because Survivor is excellent television. Not "excellent" in that I, Claudius-PBS pledge break kind of way, but rather, "excellent" in the sense that it's 152 degrees in the San Francisco Bay Area right now and if I have to do anything more mentally challenging than watching TV, my melting brain is going to seep out my ear. And... Hey! Those people are eating rats!

In case you've missed it -- and those aforementioned boffo ratings suggest that's highly unlikely -- Survivor takes 16 people and strands them on a deserted tropical island, in which "deserted" is defined as "populated by camera crews." The 16 strangers must set aside their differences and work together to build shelter, forage for food and battle the harsh, unyielding elements. In this sense, Survivor is sort of like "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island," only without the basketball-playing robots.

If that was all there was to Survivor -- participants vying against the arbitrary whims of their angry gods -- it would still be a hell of a show. But Survivor adds another, more diabolical element. The 16 contestants are split into two groups that compete against each other in survival-of-the-fittest-style games. Win, and you're King Shit: supplies, rations, fruity tropical drinks are yours for the asking. Lose, and one of the members of your tribe gets to take a long walk off a short plank. And you're the one giving that final push. Think "Lord of the Flies" meets Battle of the Network Stars. Well, Ken. The Pagong tribe seems to have managed to erect a crude shelter out of bark shavings and palm fronds, and just before the thunderstorm hits, too. And now, let's cut over to the dunk tank and see how Piggy and his teammates are making out.

It's all a sham, of course. The participants on Survivor aren't exactly roughing it. Besides those ubiquitous camera crews, doctors are standing by with canisters of antivenin, just in case the snakes decide to retaliate against the Man for moving in on their rodent action. Those folks voted off the island? It's not like they have to fashion a crude raft in under an hour or else their former comrades hunt them for sport. The losers are airlifted off to a hotel room on an adjoining isle. Nobody's had to don conch shells or weave grass skirts to stay clothed; Reebok has generously offered to supply the Survivor participants with t-shirts and other jungle garb. So I guess the key to surviving any stint on an uncharted desert isle is to make sure you've lined up a good sponsorship deal.

In other words, the Survivor cast gets in trouble, the producers will no doubt swoop in and avert disaster. CBS isn't about to leave 16 people out on an abandoned atoll to die. MTV, yes. CBS, no. Well... probably not, anyhow.

Still, even with the safety net in place, Survivor is engrossing television. There are few things more compelling than watching a half-dozen strangers try to function together as a cohesive unit, only to turn on each other like hopped-up pro wrestlers when it comes time to send someone packing. One minute you and your comrades are learning you have a heretofore undiscovered taste for grilled rat, the next you're lowering the boom on some poor sap whose only mistake was trusting in you.

The knowledge that betrayal lurks around every corner adds a sense of urgency to the proceedings, an air of noticeable desperation and politicking. Sure, you caught and gutted all those fish, Steve, and we sure are thankful... but maybe I just don't like your face. Give my regards to the hotel bellhop.

How much better would television be if this conceit were added to every show. I'm sorry, Urkel. But the rest of us want you to leave.

Forget TV -- let's add Survivor's ever-present Sword of Damocles to every aspect of life: our jobs, our relationships, our penny-ante Web sites. Tribal vote tonight, Boychuk. Wouldn't get too comfortable if I was you.

Of course, that's where CBS has gotten in to trouble with Survivor. Stick three older folks on the same island with 13 young cusses, and what do you think will happen? That the old timers will be revered for their knowledge and life experiences? That they'll be treated with the respect that our elders deserve? Or will they be cast out to sea clinging to driftwood, lest those detestable fogies consume any more of the kids' precious oxygen?

If you answered yes to the first two choices, you obviously don't watch a lot of TV.

Sonja was the first to go. She came across as a delightful woman -- turns out she's a cancer survivor who visits Alzheimer's patients in her spare time. Which would be all well and good had she not tripped during one of Survivor's weekly contests, costing her tribe the match.

Needless to say, that put Sonja in real good with Survivor's young turks. Yeah, congratulations on beating back cancer, Sonja, they may as well have said. Now, why don't you take your shit and get out?

Following Sonja out the door was B.B., a retired contractor and a bit of a grump. B.B. worked hard, helped his tribe tremendously and seemed to be the exact sort of fellow you'd want to be stuck on an island with -- provided that Tina Louise and Dawn Wells weren't options. But B.B. was also a bit bossy, and that turned out to be his fatal flaw. Young people will tolerate many things, but we will not stand for some fossil telling us what to do. We've got dot-com stock options, you know.

B.B.'s departure left only Rudy. Poor, gruff, aged Rudy.

"Once Rudy's gone, I think we'll have a very strong team," sneered Stacey, a San Francisco attorney.

As it turns out, Stacey -- not Rudy -- got the boot. Seems her teammates decided she was the weak link in the chain, what with her constant whining, lack of physical prowess and a skill set that doesn't come in too handy on an unpopulated tropical islet. Filing writs and citing precedent don't bring home the bacon. Or the rat, as it were. Still, the breeze of tribal sentiment is clearly blowing against Rudy, and unless he figures out a way to MacGyver up a satellite dish from bamboo, a few mangoes and a stick of chewing gum, I don't think he'll be around to collect the winner's prize money.

What this says about our attitudes toward older folks is fascinating... or chilling for Baby Boomers who more and more find themselves on the north side of 50. Because what gave B.B. and Sonja the shaft off the coast of Borneo didn't just materialize out of the thin tropical air.

What's that, Gran'ma? You want to ensure you get what you deserve from Social Security? That's nice. But the rest of us voted to spend the budget surplus on pizza and beer. The tribe has spoken.

While that may be all well and good from the twin standpoints of entertainment and public policy, imagine you're squarely in CBS's aging, gray-haired target audience. All you want when you turn on the TV is a little JAG, maybe some Nash Bridges. Instead, what you get is a show where everyone in your age group is systematically rooted out and humiliated. You ask CBS for an evening of harmless diversions, and the network turns around and shows you a bunch of whippersnappers showing up members of your peer group. That's not going to go down too well over at the VFW, that's for sure.

What kind of network flips a figurative bird at the very people who make up the core of its audience? Would the WB air a show that paints teen-aged girls as the devil's own horde? Can you picture a UPN show calling for the slow and unyielding eradication of young males? And ABC... would it air a show that demonizes... um... well... heh.

Just who exactly watches ABC, anyhow?

The point is, CBS runs the risk of cheesing off its best customers. Lose the older crowd, and you've lost your reason to keep broadcasting. Unless you're counting on college fraternities around the country to start hosting Diagnosis Murder drinking parties.

For CBS, then, the course of action is clear. It must let Rudy be the sole Survivor, no matter how much it has to rig the game. Give Rudy a head start on all competitions. Surreptitiously drug all of his rivals with lewd, mind-altering barbiturates. Hell, dust off those basketball-playing robots from "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island" and reprogram them to kick some young-people ass. Either way, Rudy has to win, even if Survivor winds up more crooked than an East German swim meet.

The future of Nash Bridges depends on it.


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