Why We Love Survival Shows
From the West to the East, survival shows have taken over our television screens. Most would call them reality TV, but what really is the difference between the two? For one, survival shows have an element of competition to it, keeping our eyes glued to the screen as we wonder who will come out on top. Survival shows also typically have a voting element, where the audience (yes, you!) has the chance to decide who wins the game at hand. With this definition in mind, it is clear that most shows you see on TV today are survival shows, with the likes of America's Next Top Model, American Idol, and The Bachelor in the West, and Running Man, Masked Singer, and Produce 101 in the East. These shows have been replicated around the world, with Singaporean versions such as Singapore Idol and Masterchef Singapore. In spite of the extreme popularity of these shows, many of them have been surrounded by scandals and controversies, lawsuit after lawsuit, heartbreak, and meltdowns. Take Survivor as an example. The show is currently in its 44th season and has been broadcast on mainstream television since 2000. That makes it 23 years since its first season, and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. The premise of the show lies in a group of contestants being thrown on an island, separated into different tribes based on arbitrary differences. The catch? Needing to survive on a deserted island without any of their worldly privileges. To add on to the fun, they are constantly pitted against one another in games of strength and wit.
Of course, a show this popular is not without its problems. From the get-go, there was an uproar as Richard Hatch walked around fully naked, causing much discomfort and unrest among viewers. There have been many more scandals, with a contestant being outed as transgender (Season 34), one found to have been harassing his fellow female contestants (Season 39), and even one season where the contestants were divided based on race (Season 13). Despite these controversies, the show still has dedicated fans, with much excitement for the new podcast by host Jeff Probst who provides behind-the-scenes information and a breakdown of each season.
Photo of Survivor contestants from CBS
These problems are not exclusive to Western survival shows. When talking about survival shows in the East, most heads would turn to the infamous Korean idol survival shows like Produce 101, Girls Planet, YG Treasure Box, and more. The most popular of them all, however, is undeniably the Produce 101 series. It is most known for being a show marred with so many scandals that the network was forced to shut it down after just four seasons. Right from the first season, viewers were introduced to the hard-hitting reality of the idol world. Contestants being cruelly ranked from A to F by competency. The show focused as much on the contestants’ meltdowns and failures as it did on their dance and vocal practices. There were complaints of favouritism towards trainees from certain companies, and “evil editing,” where producers were accused of editing certain scenes unfavourably.
However, the controversy that ended the show was one that fans had suspected for a long time coming. The winners of the 4th and final season, Produce X 101, were found to have been rigged by the producers of the show, Ahn Joon-young and Kim Yong-beom. Ahn and Kim were found guilty of manipulating the votes sent in by the audience, which changed the final line-up of winners. They were also guilty of accepting bribes from agencies in exchange for extra privileges for the contestants from those agencies. This scandal shocked the nation and fans worldwide, forever tarnishing the “Produce” name.
Photo from Produce X 101 from Mnet
Despite these controversies, survival shows remain popular today. Audiences still tune in by the millions, to watch people compete against one another to achieve a final goal. Survivor still continues to draw in thousands of viewers from around the world, and Korean idol shows continue under different names. So the question remains; what makes this good TV?
The first reason is simple, and something that you probably thought of immediately. People love drama. When there are fights on the street, people stare and start recording. When something happens in the news, people comment and start an online discussion. When someone starts an argument in a grocery store, people share looks with fellow onlookers. It is human nature to be attracted to drama; it makes us feel active, accountable, and engaged. Hence, with the rise of survival shows that show the best and worst sides of people, with an uncensored (or as uncensored as it can be) view of competitors fighting against one another, it becomes something that is inevitably popular amongst viewers.
The next reason is more introspective. Reality TV, and by extension, survival shows, make people reflect on themselves as they imagine themselves in those scenarios. As “The Bachelorette” star Kaitlyn Bristowe puts it, “It almost forces you to hold up a mirror and think about yourself in those situations, and how you would react… It’s comforting in some weird way.” There certainly is an attraction to watching people do and achieve things that we might never be able to do, from the comfort of our own homes. Take the latest Netflix survival show, Physical 100. The first episode featured a challenge of hanging from a bar, for the longest time possible. This spurred discussions on how others would have approached the challenge, with talk of different positions and strategies. It also inspired tons of TikTok videos of people trying to attempt the same challenge at home.
Photo from Physical 100 on Netflix
The last reason would be the sense of responsibility that audiences feel when watching survival shows. In the case of some survival shows like X-Factor, American Idol and Produce 101, the audience plays an important role in deciding whether or not the contestant stays on the show. There is a sense of responsibility over the future of these contestants, as the audience could be their last glimmer of hope for staying in the competition. The stakes are high. This is especially the case for Korean idol survival shows, where producers purposefully highlight that this might be the last chance at debuting for some of these contestants. Shows like Masterchef and American Idol also come with substantial cash prizes, along with other deals that could set the winner for life. The pressure of potentially making or breaking someone’s career increases the stakes not just for the contestants, but for the audience as well, keeping them glued to their seats.
Ultimately, no matter how many scandals these survival shows produce, they are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, extremely popular with audiences worldwide. The drama, schemes, and revelations may shock viewers, but they will undoubtedly keep coming back for more. With each controversy, we may hope for conditions to get better, but whether or not they actually will, is up for interpretation and further observation. For now, all audiences can do is watch as their favourite contestants either rise to the top or crash and burn in flames.