The executive decision by “Survivor’s” producers to divide up its contestants by race in this, its 13th season, is by now well known. As misguided (and ultimately ineffective) a publicity stunt as that is, the buildup to the premiere involved largely positive dialogue. Debate centered on why we have come to a point in our nation where a show can legitimately employ such a blatant marketing ploy under the guise of “building greater diversity” and even began to touch on the basic underlying inequalities that lead to largely white participants on shows like “Survivor.”

Jonathan Duggan

And then the show actually premiered and the truth became painfully clear: This is no attempt at social commentary or relevance, it’s just the same old “Survivor,” where sweaty people chase chickens in the woods and it’s about six seasons since anyone cared.

But even if it’s just a TV show, it has led much of America to have all the wrong conversations. Whether having a black contestant declare “black people don’t like to be told what to do” or the Asians figuring out the puzzle first (simple coincidence, surely) the show’s premiere ignorantly played up the same misinformed stereotypes that first attracted media attention. But why has “Survivor,” which was America’s most watched show from 2000 to 2001, turned to such desperate measures?

“Survivor,” as even its most diehard fanatics would have to admit, is not what it once was. Born as a rebuttal to the sappy, largely superficial television comedies and dramas of late 1990s had taken, the show took off shortly into its first season, with a finale that drew an astounding 51.7 million viewers. Audiences loved its “real” portrayal of life because it served as a refreshing change of pace from the whiny urban themes that overran other shows. It had many competitors but remained the gold standard. Two seasons were pumped out every year and even at that blistering clip, and the show managed to go several seasons still attracting 20-million-plus viewers per season premiere and finale.

But nothing lasts forever, and “Survivor” saw a significant drop in viewership over the past several seasons. (Last year’s finale only drew about 17 million viewers – the least-watched “Survivor” finale ever.) As other genres began dominating (crime dramas like “CSI” and “24” and the unappeasable ratings hog “American Idol”) and reality shows became more parody than actual reality (what else can you expect when Hulk Hogan has a “reality” show), “Survivor” fell far from its perch atop the ratings heap and became respectable, but largely insubstantial.

From that point of view, you have to hand it to the show’s producers for refusing to give up and fighting to return the show to prominence. But for every Michael Jordan emerging from his first retirement, there’s a Jordan emerging from his second retirement – champions have to know when to walk away.

“Survivor” never could just walk away. It goes against the core of what the show stands for. Whereas TV enterprises like “Seinfeld” and “The West Wing” are artistic creations as much as commercial ventures, they had to know when to end and had much to gain – for the actors and producers – by walking away on top. “Survivor” isn’t creative; its sole purpose, at least over the last few seasons, has been to provide entertainment, swinging astronomic profits. And if no one’s reputation is on the line, it makes no sense to walk away from an unfailing cash cow.

And so “Survivor” pulled this publicity stunt to regain lost viewers and ad revenue, even at the expense of generating all the wrong talk among its viewers. While it’s too early to tell if the ploy worked, early returns are nothing to get excited about. The premiere garnered 18 million viewers, the smallest audience for a “Survivor” premiere since the very first season and a far cry from its peak at about 45 million viewers.

Clearly not the resembling the resurgent champion who has aged gracefully and adapted to the changing game, this old, irrelevant shadow of the robust phenomenon we knew as “Survivor” should bring tears to the eyes of its most faithful supporters. Like a pudgy Willie Mays stumbling around in the outfield for the New York Mets or a sluggish Emmitt Smith plodding along in the Arizona Cardinals’s backfield, “Survivor” is a champion that has overstayed its era.

Now is as good a time as any to simply walk away.

– Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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