Peak viewership: Jan. 28, 2001, 45.37 million viewers
Lowest viewership: Feb. 13, 2013, 8.94 million viewers
"We don't do Survivor to attract new viewers. You will never catch me in a conversation going 'Oh, please just check out our show! I promise you'll like it' -- I just say to our team, keep making the show our audience wants."
That's host Jeff Probst talking to Entertainment Weekly in December, just after Survivor was renewed for two more seasons. He's just been sentenced to his 14th year of this game show and will continue to ride immunity idols and plot twists to an enormous legacy fortune for future generations of Probsts.
He's also admitting that Survivor is just about done caring. All it wants to do is put together a decent cast that people will actually watch and reel in the majority of the same people who were watching last season. That's not the headiest goal for a show that was both a cultural phenomenon and the epicenter of the reality television explosion when it first aired in 2000, but then again it was never meant to be the headiest of shows. It was meant to be an inexpensive, lowest-common-denominator ratings grab just slightly more exciting than Regis Philbin and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? It never gets enough credit for giving us the wealth of chopper builders, cake sculptors, suburban psychics, duck call makers and shouting shore dwellers that came afterward -- MTV's never-ending The Real World is usually cited as reality TV's spiritual predecessor -- but it made low-grade, lightly scripted drama palatable for the prime-time masses.
By the way, look at that 45 million number again. That is for the premiere of Survivor's second season, and it's a higher-rated show than the series finale of The Cosby Show. Unless you're airing an NFL conference title game or the Super Bowl, you're just not going to see that kind of number. It's the closest thing to universal as you're going to get without ending a beloved series.
Now the show has trouble pulling in 10 million, but it absolutely doesn't matter. The more than 9 million viewers who watch Survivor on Wednesdays now outnumber American Idol watchers by roughly 2 million and more than double the audience of NBC's Revolution. It realizes it's up against absolutely nothing and can just keep playing its big, dumb game.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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