"SURVIVOR RETURNS TO TELEVISION this Thursday. The third edition of TV's most-watched show is set in Africa and will again pit 16 American contestants against one another in contrived social combat. "Survivor" is the flagship of reality television, a genre that now comprises nearly 20 percent of network prime-time programming. And on Thursday night all eyes in TV land will be on its ratings, because "Survivor" is Hollywood's canary in the cathode-ray tube.
The entertainment industry has undergone a minor crisis since September 11. Movie releases have been rescheduled, the fall TV schedule was pushed back. Hollywood wanted to avoid appearing unsympathetic and unpatriotic, so in the days immediately following the attack, they changed the one-sheet poster for "The Last Castle" (which featured an upside-down American flag), delayed the release of the movie "Training Day" (which revolves around a brutal and corrupt LA cop), and shelved indefinitely the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger film "Collateral Damage" (in which our hero pursues a terrorist bomber who blows up part of Washington, D.C.).
The second wave of reaction turned to movies that were not yet complete. "Men in Black 2," "City by the Sea," and "Spiderman" were all supposed to prominently feature the World Trade Center. Those scripts and scenes are being modified to excise the buildings' presence. "Tick-Tock" and "The Sum of All Fears" were supposed to deal with terrorist attacks on America. Production on "Tick-Tock" has been put off indefinitely, and "The Sum of All Fears," adapted from a Tom Clancy novel, is being rewritten so that the terrorist bad guys are white neo-Nazis, not the Islamic extremists of the book.
While the movie studios have scrambled, the TV networks have fretted. In many ways, television is less flexible than the film world. Once it is in the production pipeline, a show takes no less than three months until it is ready to air, and while networks always hold one or two shows in reserve as mid-season replacements, they are essentially locked into the programming schedule they decided on half a year ago.
Now they are holding their collective breath to see if September 11 really has changed American tastes and tolerances. CBS allowed the finale of "Big Brother 2" to run shortly after the attacks. It tanked, and Fox's highly anticipated series "Love Cruise" fared even worse when it debuted two weeks after the attacks.
The big problem for "Survivor" is that since it was shot last summer, the contestants don't know about September 11. In many ways, they'll look and sound like people from a different era in history. And the era they are from was full of fatuousness and selfishness.
Part of the kinky fun of "Survivor" has always been seeing ourselves in the castaways. But does the thrill of virtual avarice hold up over time? Will we blanch when we see what we used to be like?
Television executives are worried that no one wants to watch 16 Americans conniving, lying, and double-crossing one another in pursuit of $1 million when the dominant picture we hold of ourselves is of the grimy men in the bucket brigade in the ruins of the World Trade Center. If Americans tune out, the industry as a whole will suffer, because as goes "Survivor," so go its clones, "The Mole," "Fear Factor," "Big Brother," "The Amazing Race," "Lost," "The Weakest Link," and the all the rest.
But if we tune back in to "Survivor," it suggests something unattractive: that all of the flag-waving and singing, all of the tears and solemn vows, were nothing more than a yearning to be connected to a big event. It means that in the American consciousness, September 11 wasn't Pearl Harbor, it was Princess Diana's death to the hundredth power. A nation at peace can be entertained by "Survivor." A nation that understands itself to be at war can only be repelled by it.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.