July 3, 2006
"Welcome to the Jungle of the Real": An Insightful Essay on the Survivor Phenomenon

Independent scholar Christopher J. Wright, author of a book coming out later this month from Lexington Books titled Tribal Warfare: Survivor and the Political Unconscious of Reality Television, gave a preview of his insight on the popular reality show in a poignant essay in the June 2006 installment of The Journal of American Culture.

Wright's essay, "Welcome to the Jungle of the Real: Simulation, Commoditization, and Survivor," details the way in which television shows become not just content to drive marketing but are marketed themselves. This marketing includes the ancillary products that are sold based around the television show, which seem obvious to anyone who has studied the creative industries in great detail, but also--especially--the marketing of the show's past seasons as Survivor progresses and the commoditizing of people who appear on the reality show--as Wright points out, "these days even people can be commodities" (170). I would say "especially" people can be commodities and that it's no recent phenomenon, as the immense amount of scholarship on the marketing of early mass sports stars or Hollywood star images proves.

However, Wright points out the hyperreality of reality television shows, meaning that the line between "real" and "fictional" becomes blurred so that "real" events play into the fictional world. I've found this concept immensely helpful in understanding immersive story world that try to blend reality and fantasy, including both alternate reality gaming (ARGs) and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Thanks to Ben Wright for his Master's thesis study of hyperreality in pro wrestling for helping me solidify those thoughts.

Christopher J.. Wright studies how the repeated process of a Survivor episode both commodifies the past and teaches viewers about the show's rituals, so that the Tribal Council portion of the show that originally seemed comical and absurd to some of the first season's contestants has been so effectively built in the show's production that contestants by the second season felt there was an aura around the contrived event that was created by their own viewing of the first season.

This coincides in the pro wrestling world with the development of the Wrestlemania PPV event. For the first several years, WWE promoters tried to bill Wrestlemania as the most important card of the year, as an event that would transcend time with performances that would be remembered forever. Many of the early wrestlers probably didn't view it as that much more special than other paydays...but, through the years and repeated marketing of the images from the early Wrestlemanias, most of today's performers who grew up as fans watching Wrestlemania have bought into this myth to the point that they themselves see Wrestlemania as a sacred event.

Wright's piece goes on to examine how other reality shows and Survivor itself has effectively built on itself and created the "reality television" genre that remains so prevalent today. He also gives a small amount of space to Survivor spoiler fan communities online.

For those who are interested in reading about how Survivor has developed such a passionate fan following, Henry Jenkins has a chapter dedicated to Survivor spoiler communities in his upcoming book Convergence Culture. But Wright's essay provides some key insights about how Survivor has built its history and its myths that are worth checking out.