Today is Memorial Day, of course, and it happens to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of Survivor‘s May 31, 2000, debut. Yes, it has been one decade since the CBS reality competition first aired and changed everything.
Making the Band was the first network reality TV series, beating Survivor by a few months, and The Real World–borrowing heavily from An American Family–really established the genre of narrative, episodic reality TV. But as I’ve written, it was Jeff Probst and company who profoundly impacted television.
The series aired on a Wednesday at 8 p.m., opposite Who Wants to be a Millionaire–a game show that was the previous summer’s phenomenon–and Dawson’s Creek, among other shows. My addiction to reality TV began years earlier, so I was eager to watch, but I actually didn’t see most of the first episode. Just after it began, my phone ran: it was a potential employer calling to do a phone interview. (I didn’t get the job and the company went out of business shortly thereafter, not that I’d want to work for someone who interrupts such a major TV event.) I tuned in only in time to see Sonja Christopher fall in the water and lose the challenge for her tribe, and pay for that at Tribal Council, which back then included a chest of fake cash. Still, I was hooked, as was the rest of the country, and the show went on to conclude with 51 million people watching. American Idol has never come close. Never.
If you want to measure the series’ impact on our culture, just look around, from The View to the massive list of unscripted TV shows airing this summer. And it’s practically inescapable: Yesterday, friends invited me to join them for an afternoon at a casino located a few hours away, and it had a Survivor slot machine (which was good to me), although I couldn’t even try the Amazing Race slots because they were mobbed. After I cashed out, I wandered around and noticed a sign that said Russell Hantz and Natalie White are appearing in the lobby bar at the very same casino today.
Survivor may no longer be the show viewers and the press salivate over in quite the same way that they did a decade ago, but it still has fans, and it has aged remarkably well. Few series hold my attention throughout their entire run, and though it has had a few flat seasons, it keeps topping itself, and CBS is confident enough in its strength to move it back to its original timeslot this fall. Survivor may not be around in 10 more years, in 2020, but I have no doubt its influence will still be felt long after that.