Survival of the Fittest - Reality Show, That Is

One weekend, three competitors and the threat of being kicked off the airwaves. Or: how to survive on a tropical island and on screen.

Anyone who recently tuned in to Channel 10 couldn't ignore the flood of trailers for the big event on Saturday, when the first episode of "Survivor," hosted by Guy Zoaretz, will air. The channel, which has promised to provide high-quality, alternative programming - in short, to be everything that it currently is not - is doing an Israeli version of the American reality show format, this time paid for with good money.

The channel's reality shows already include "Laredet B'gadol" (the Israeli version of "The Biggest Loser"), "Hadugmaniot" (The Models), and "Krav Sakinim" (Knife Fight, a chef competition). Now, to top the list, 20 contestants have been sent to a Caribbean island for 52 days. The "Survivor" contestants have been divided into two "tribes," given physical and mental challenges, and at the end of every second episode (at least in the Israeli version), one of the contestants is dropped. The last remaining contestant wins a house and an SUV (and not $1 million, as in the American version).

Based on a preliminary version screened privately for a Haaretz correspondent at Meimad Studios last week, the production quality of the series, by Motty Reif and Guy Hameiri, is very high and almost parallels the American version. If they were to dub the blue-eyed Israeli contestants' speech into American English and cut some references to Golani and elite reconnaissance units, there would be no discernible difference. Shahar Morad, one of the series' editors, took this as a compliment, even though it was not intended as such.

The series is packed with beautiful people. As in the American version, there are three relatively old contestants, a woman and two men, as well as a large, eccentric, big-mouthed woman of the kind that appeared in almost every one of the 15 seasons of the original "Survivor."

Morad insisted the show did not attempt to cast token representatives of the various sectors of society. "We won't have the 'Ethiopian immigrant' or 'the Arab' here, as was the case with 'The Models,' for example," he said. The producers looked for people "of high status and standing," so that the on-screen intrigues would be complex. One way or another, by the second episode - the first one where someone gets dropped - the tears are flowing.

But the real drama surrounding this program does not take place on an island, but in Tel Aviv. There are three contestants - Channel 10 and the two Channel 2 franchisees, Keshet and Reshet - and here, too, the fear of being kicked off is a motivating factor.

Like other similar series that are essentially just one of a slew of dramas, comedies and game shows, "Survivor" is to air on Friday and Saturday nights, and is considered a flagship program. One might argue with the decision to schedule a completely unoriginal show at the heart of a schedule already loaded with similar entertainment programs, but one cannot ignore the fact that "Survivor" certainly can achieve the station's objective: attracting new viewers. This week it will air on Saturday night, and starting next week it will get a double broadcast - one on Friday night, followed by the elimination episode on Saturday night.

Channel 2 is not ignoring this threat. On the contrary. Even though Friday programming rights will be transferred from Keshet to Reshet in January, Keshet is not interested in risking a historic first-ever loss in the battle for weekend viewers to the new commercial channel.

As the first fight approaches, there has been a general mobilization: not only "Eretz Nehederet" (A Wonderful Country) and "Rak B'Yisrael" (Only in Israel), but also "Zehu Zeh." The special program set to air Friday on Channel 2 - at the same time the first episode of "Survivor" originally had been scheduled - has been called "Pisgat Hatzhok," and combines new comedy skits by the "Eretz Nehederet" team and the "Zehu Zeh" troupe as part of the nostalgia show "Rak B'Yisrael," which is celebrating 40 years of Israeli television.

Channel 10 officials realized the fight would be tough, and made a tactical decision: They rescheduled the first episode of "Survivor" from Friday to Saturday night, leaving Keshet with all its big guns pulled out for a regular night.

Keshet officials apparently realized some rethinking was necessary. They decided to hold "Pisgat Hatzhok" for the following week, when Channel 10 will no longer be able to forgo airing "Survivor" on Friday. The trailers have been changed accordingly: from "on Friday" to "coming soon on Friday."

This Saturday, during the launch of "Survivor," Keshet is planning to air "Born to Dance," a ratings hit in its own right, while also launching this week "the real competition," as they put it, in a live program with the new show's first 10 contestants (tomorrow they will choose no less than nine of the 21 contestants). The rumor is that the program will be aired continuously, with no commercial breaks. The interesting question is, where did Yatzpan disappear to with "Shalom and Good Evening"? The answer may surface next week.

Reshet, which will soon get Fridays, also is planning to take on the entertainment and reality shows. Reshet was already burned by Channel 10 when "Knife Fight" attained high ratings, forcing it to pull out "Fisfusim" to compete.

Their Friday will start with a new Rivka Michaeli program, and continue with Yair Lapid's news program and a reality program apparently less popular than "Survivor" - "Grease," where 24 contestants compete to play the lead roles in the Israeli stage version of the musical (similar contests were carried out in the United States and Britain). The trailer influx is underway. It will be followed by "Kapiyot," a new comedy series with Keren Mor, Lior Ashkenazi, Anya Buckstein and Ofer Schechter.

Basically, Channel 10's decision to air "Survivor" now is actually connected to anticipation for "Grease": Knowing that the franchisees will switch on Friday, they apparently decided to get viewers hooked on something else, before they even find out about Reshet's surprise.

At the same time as the Saturday-night elimination episode of "Survivor," Reshet will air "One Against a Hundred," the game show that was so successful this summer that at times it seemed like this was the franchisee's only program.

Unlike the contestants on "Survivor," the two commercial channels will probably survive until the end of this season, but someone might lose a million dollars.