Jon Reed Goes Off On... April 2004
Wednesday, April, 14 2004
Survivor, we have a marketing problem
"Survivor All Stars" started out brilliantly. Especially for hardcore devotees, seeing our favorite contestants go head-to-head was almost too good to be true. But the show has now come down to a familiar "dominant alliance cleans house" scenario, and thus "Survivor All Stars" now has a marketing problem: how to keep viewers interested in a dominant-alliance-takes-out-subordinate-alliance plotline that, barring a stunning turn of events, should play out over the next few weeks.
Despite the fact that some of the most likeable (and/or) most cerebral Survivor players got voted out due to lost challenges (Rob C, Rich, Ethan), up until two weeks ago, a promising showdown between Lex and Boston Rob ("The Robfather") was still an outside possibility, with Big Tom, friends with Lex from Survivor Africa, looming as the high-drama swing vote. If this had played out, this week's Survivor episode would have been one of the best ever, with Lex going all out to win Tom over to his side and risk the wrath of Rob and others on the jury.
But in truth, the comparatively mundane outcome we got instead has been in the works for a number of weeks, largely due to the Mogo Mogo tribe's surprising incompetence in tribal challenges. The producers, sensing that the show was heading toward a predictable outcome, and likely concerned that engaging players like Ethan were getting the boot while why-is-she-here Survivors like Jenna coasted along, had the excellent idea to shake up the two remaining tribes one more time through a random drawing. But in an almost-eerie segment, which we can now look back on with great disappointment, Amber was the only tribe member that drew the wrong color and had to switch from one tribe to the other.
Yet even then, there was still hope for an exciting scenario to emerge. Surely Lex, recognizing the Robfather as his main impediment in the game, would leap at the chance to vote Amber out, putting his alliance in a position to potentially vote Rob out after a merge, if Lex could only sway Tom to his side. It would have made for high drama and high television. But Lex, who had years to nurse his wounds from Survivor Africa and come up with a better game plan, made an inept beginner's mistake, a why-isn't-Grady-Little-pulling-Pedro-out-of-the-game kind of botch job that even the casual viewer could pick up on immediately. Of course, Lex had some help along this ill-thought path.
Lex was swayed/encouraged by Kathy and Shii Ann, who together with Lex made the colossal blunder of voting out someone they didn't like to camp with (Jerri), despite the fact that there was a million dollars at stake if they could just share burned rice with Jerri for a few more days. A self-described student of the game, Lex inexplicably overlooked the value of Jerri's to-the-end loyalty - and which All Star has done more to improve their image from last time around than Jerri - and kept Amber in the game instead, even though Jerri would have been an ideal final four companion and would have been a stable part of that voting bloc to the end.
Jerri only wanted to make friends, stick with them, and go as far as she could go - ideally without doing much work around the camp or trying to get along with those she didn't like. Jerri's game plan wouldn't have taken her to the end, but it has to be said that she was one of only a handful of All Stars who seemed to have a clear game plan at all, besides hunkering down in their dominant alliance and voting as Robfather saw fit.
Of course, Jerri's simple game could have taken her much further if Lex had realized that he had to choose between Jerri's strategy and the ruthless Alpha male approach to game manipulation he flirted with, but ultimately did not fully embrace. Lex tried to play both Jerri's game and Boston Rob's game, revealing unflattering weaknesses in both his character and his game strategy, and coming off with a lot more hypocrisy and muddled thinking than professed Lex fans like myself wanted to see. His final comments had dignity and grace, but raised an important question: if his life was so perfect without Survivor, why did he come along? All he did was wreck pre-existing friendships and place moral judgments on Rob that reeked of sour grapes hypocrisy and poorly-thought strategy.
Some online research determined that the main reason Lex didn't vote Amber out was due to the fact that he considered Rob a friend outside of the game, a friend who would honor his vow to take care of him. To this day, Lex still feels betrayed by Rob's obvious and totally predictable maneuver. The viewer was thus placed in the awkward position of seeing Lex, potentially the best Survivor of all time, reduced to the role of a moralizing hypocrite, someone who put his friendship with Rob above the interests of the game - a friendship which Lex admits is now on the rocks. I could have told Lex that Rob wasn't really his friend and he could have saved himself the trouble of going to All Stars in the first place. In hindsight, Rob's most brilliant action was befriending Lex before All Star Survivor, thereby putting himself in the position to exploit the only major weakness in Lex's game strategy.
The idea of coming to All Star Survivor to make friends (or honor friendships) is truly beyond comprehension. Clearly, a game full of savvy players was going to be rife with betrayals and double-crosses. Either you go to Survivor All Stars to make a million dollars and be lied to at every opportunity, or you are just an ass on a poorly-stocked camping trip where the only possible outcome is a dimmer view of human nature and a lot of hurt feelings.
Surprisingly, many All Star Survivors did not seem to come to play, and we can now add Lex to that list. For Lex to reveal such blind trust and conflicting agendas was truly an indictment of his abilities at this level. And his post-Survivor claim that he was truly playing the game with friendship in mind is baffling, especially considering his consecutive votes against Ethan and Jerri, his two good friends from him own tribe. How can we take his unjustified feelings of betrayal against Rob seriously when he offered no such consideration to Ethan?
Lex, of course, sees the situation differently, but we're betting Ethan sees some similarities. Either way, Lex's explanation of how he played the game doesn't add up. Our current analysis? That Lex simply wasn't as good as player as we wanted him to be. He seems to be a good person outside of the game, but the game brings on situations that are overwhelming to him. He's a lot more like Kathy than we'd like to admit. Good strategists, and good players, but probably not good enough to win Survivor All Stars. It's hard to admit that the Robfather is a much better player than Lex, but how can you not? Never thought I'd be saying this, but where's Brian when you need him? Brian is the one player who would have known how to handle the Robfather's antics (plus beat him in some challenges). Rob's hold on his fellow Survivors is not unlike the hold Brian had during his winning season, which is quite an achievement when you consider the All Star stakes.
The thinking here is that Lex was ultimately afraid of Rob's wrath and unwilling to view Rob as an enemy to be eliminated. Rob correctly perceived Lex as his biggest threat and took care of him. He has no need to feel guilty about doing so. He came to win and has a very good chance to pull it off. It says here that the only way he doesn't get to the final two is if "Big Tom" wins a crucial late game immunity, or if Alicia wakes up late in the game and finds a way to overturn Rob. But the chances of a women's coup are greatly reduced by Amber's loyalty to Rob. So, we're stuck with the current scenario for the foreseeable future.
It's hard to choose just one, but Lex's biggest mistake was his failure to recognize that immediately after the final merge, the game is not yet a truly individual game. At the soon-after-merge point in the game, the dominant alliance is almost always going to pick off the minority alliance. Lex's knowledge of Survivor history surely included this knowledge. For this reason alone, Lex's feelings of betrayal are totally inappropriate.
Even if Rob had spared Lex from "Loser's Lodge" due to their supposed "verbal contract," Kathy or Shii Ann would have gone instead, further reducing Lex's power base within the game. Lex needed numbers to take Rob down, and that's why his Rob's-going-to-take-care-of-me approach was so na´ve and pathetic. For a self-styled "player of the game," Lex turned out to be an out-of-place idealist who was willing to position himself as the Alpha male target but without exercising the ruthlessness necessary to succeed in that role. Folks that say "if only Lex had won that last challenge" are missing the point. Had he won, then Kathy goes home, and Lex goes home next week.
As painful as it is to watch seemingly less deserving players advance while Lex goes home, Lex (and fans like me) need to keep in mind that the same people he has so much contempt for because they flew under the radar are actually playing a more effective game than he did. He chose to play a mutant game somewhere between Alpha male and loyal friend and left himself exposed on all sides, ruining friendships with Rob (and more than likely Ethan) in the process.
Lex was great to watch, but he did not play the great game that so many of us thought he was capable of. Of course Kathy, another overrated but likeable player, cannot be absolved from the same kinds of criticisms, especially since she was ultimately the one who chose Jerri over Amber from what Lex has indicated. Although Kathy's power in the game was not worthy of Shii Ann's fawning worship a few episodes back, certainly Lex had enough respect for Kathy's relative power in the game to take her input very seriously. It's not hard to argue that Kathy was ultimately the reason that Jerri was voted off over Amber.
Indeed, the mistake to vote off Jerri instead of Amber was a "game-defining" mistake for all three of them, with only Kathy in position to find some way around it. But if the previews from next week are an accurate indication, her best idea is to get Jenna voted off. We can sympathize with her desire to boot off Jenna, because Jenna is a truly annoying Survivor who has no right to a one-in-eight shot at a million dollars. But if Kathy's best way of regrouping is by voting out one of the few people who might be persuaded to turn on Rob and Amber, then her All Star credentials remain suspect.
All things considered, with all the Survivors I pulled for now chilling at "Loser's Lodge," it comes down to rooting for Kathy to get herself together and pull off a miracle. It's hard for me to love the Robfather - though he is a more likeable Robfather than last time - but to begrudge him a victory after his brilliant performance would be foolish. One final comment is simply an appreciation for Amber, who was arguably the least deserving All Star selected. But she has made most of her opportunities so far, and if she gets to the final two, she will have proved a few points about her inclusion here.
As for Survivor's marketing problem, well, we all know the game can change, and in a few weeks, the dominant alliance will have to start eating itself, and there will be a window of a few weeks where it will get very interesting, especially if either Rob or Amber is forced to make a classic choice between their sweet island love and a million dollars.
But it would help if the remaining contestants, Rob (and possibly Amber) excluded, were playing the game in a fashion that was truly worthy of All Star status. We'll accept a number of ways to play the game, just have a coherent plan! Perhaps we'll see more of Big Tom and Alicia and be persuaded that they had a well-thought strategy all along and were just waiting for their moment.
As for the rest, Jenna's strategy was to vote out the previous winners, so she has achieved her objective in the game. Rupert's strategy was to resent Rob, go fishing, and take pretty girls on reward challenges. He has also met his game objectives. Meanwhile, Kathy and Shii Ann are hanging on for dear life and evidently plotting to help Jenna out of the game, leaving them less equipped to deal with more formidable adversaries.
Yes, I'm in for the duration, and I'll enjoy every minute of it, but it would be that much better if I gave two shits about any of them.
Sunday, April, 04 2004
Marketing glitch: it's not "The Apprentice," it's "The Corporate Manager"
"The Apprentice" launched with great fanfare, and it's delivered the goods. While lacking the edge-of-your-seat drama and emotional intensity of "Survivor" at its best, "The Apprentice" delivers something unique: a combination of reality t.v. theater and business education. What "The Apprentice" sometimes lacks in tension it makes up for in substance: it's a reality show that works on numerous levels, and Donald Trump has played his part to perfection. But here's the beef: with the dismissal of Troy over Kwame, "The Donald" has made it clear that he's not really looking for an "Apprentice," he's looking for a corporate manager. He wants a hired stiff to watch over some less important entity while The Donald concentrates on building his fame through the runaway success of "the best show ever made."
From the beginning, this show was marketed as a "big break" for a hungry, talented young businessperson with an eye for the prize. For Donald to kick off the contestant who is without a doubt the most like himself in favor of a classroom-bred manager is a betrayal of the show's premise and how it was marketed. As Donald said, hiring Troy would have been a risk. Troy would have required supervision. Yes, he would have required some training. Umm...isn't that what an Apprenticeship is all about? Is there any doubt that Troy, if selected, would have jumped through any hoops Donald asked of him? Kwame, on the other hand, requires no training and needs little supervision. But don't count on him to make you any money with his own ideas. Kwame has already shown he doesn't really have any. On this series-defining episode, Donald also had an ideal opportunity to clarify that you don't need an MBA from Harvard to be Donald Trump. He failed miserably, instead needling Troy about the benefits of education.
That's nonsense. To be Donald Trump, you only need a high school degree. Exhibit A: Bill Gates. One of the richest men in my own town has no degree, and the list goes on and on. Of course, once you create a company, it needs to be managed, and that is where the Kwames of the world come in. For my own part, I had mixed feelings about Troy, who definitely needs to clean up his sales tactics and learn more about "relationship-based" sales instead of "gunning for the close." But has there been a better moment on the show than when Troy laid out his high school yearbook quote on the table, looked Trump in the eye, and said "Trump, here I come"? And was there anyone hungrier and more deserving of an Apprenticeship, than Troy?
Donald markets America as the land of opportunity. But when faced with the candidate who most embodied that image, Trump had two words: "You're Fired." Ultimately, Amy is the best player. She and Troy are the only two candidates with exceptional entrepreneurial instincts, but Amy brings more polish to the package. Troy would likely have lost to Amy in the end, and rightly so. But by giving Troy the boot against Kwame, The Donald made it clear he has no intention of spending time with his "Apprentice" ironing out the rough edges. Troy, with some further training, could have made Donald a lot of money, but not anywhere near the money The Donald can make building on his own fame on "The Apprentice." In short, Donald didn't want to be Troy's mentor because he had better things to do. Given how the last show went, I'm not quite as confident that Amy will win this competition as I was before. If all Trump needs is a savvy manager, then Bill and Kwame are just as qualified as Amy.
"The Apprentice" has delivered. But it has a marketing problem: it led me to believe in a show that was different than the show it became. Call it "The Apprentice" if you want. I call it "The Corporate Manager."
Zach, you were too good for SportsCenter anyway
"Dream Job," ESPN's much-hyped "choose the next SportsCenter anchor" reality show, ended with a resounding thud last Sunday night, when Final Four wild card Zach Selwyn was booted in favor of "Aaron and Mike," two peas in a generic pod that competed for the grand prize (Mike won). We were on the verge of seeing ESPN hire its most distinctive anchor since Keith Olbermann, but instead, ESPN viewers (a.k.a. "America") ended up with a choice between two guys who are surely no different than the many young talking heads that apply to ESPN each year.
Perhaps most heartbreaking was Tony Kornheiser's cut of Zach, given that Zach was the one contestant who really held his own with Tony in a mock-PTI segment. After Tony voted, the surprisingly cool Kit Hoover from "Cold Pizza" put Tony to shame by keeping Zach on the show. Kit said what many of us felt: that she was looking forward to Zach shaking up SportsCenter a little bit and bringing more edge to the show. To his credit, Tony immediately realized he had played the role of stodgy, player-hating coward (move over, Al Jaffe), but it was too late - his vote was the swing. You knew stiff Al would never go for Zach.
But of course what Al thinks SportsCenter should be like and what it is like are two different things. Al has a fantasy about a tie-wearing, button-down SportsCenter that is most certainly not SportsCenter at its best. But we expected Al to vote in favor of a generic entity he could mold and control. But Tony, how could you miss this one? Tony, you owe it to America: give Zach a guest spot on "PTI" to atone for your oversight. It would be a small consolation, but it's the least you can do to soothe your own guilt over your late-breaking conservatism. Tony, what's the rush to define SportsCenter in the most conventional way possible? How about choosing the most talented person and hoping for the best? Isn't that what big time sports is all about? And as for the winner - Mike - well, I'm not listing his last name because it doesn't matter. He's Mike. He's a nice, sports-loving kid with some broadcasting talent, and there are plenty of them out there. He's a "team player;" he's not going to shake things up or challenge ESPN conventions.
Mike's already appeared on ESPN news, etc. I think I'm the only one besides Mike's own family that knows that. If Zach had won, all of his early broadcasts would have been "must-watch" for any "Dream Job" fan. But Mike is, well, Mike. We wish him well, but he's already faded into the vanilla territory of the typical ESPN News anchor. So ESPN loses not only some of its luster, it also loses a ratings bonanza. As for Zach, well, what nice things CAN'T you say about this guy. He groomed his hair, but he refused to cut it. He handled losing graciously; he truly seemed to respect and like his competitors, and he is a total class act.
Zach, your only problem is that you were too good for SportsCenter in the first place. Here's hoping you find something to aspire to where originality is rated higher than conformity. But ESPN has an even bigger problem: if "Mike" is what SportsCenter anchors are supposed to be like, how you can you consider that a "Dream Job"? A "Dream Job" is what Keith Olbermann had - narrating highlights and dishing out sharp commentary on the fly. How ironic that ESPN launches "Dream Job" to seem fresh and innovative, and instead we get a long and unsavory glimpse into how ESPN's franchise show has codified into a slow-moving, focus-group-dependent dinosaur.