On Thursday six former contestants from “Survivor” — the reality TV show that Northwestern University Professor Max Dawson says transformed the American television industry — will visit his NU class titled “The Tribe Has Spoken: Surviving TV’s New Reality.”
Offered for the first time ever, the oversubscribed class is modeled after the CBS reality show “Survivor,” which begins its new season Feb. 15. The 55 undergraduate students in the class — many of whom hope to be TV producers or executives — are divided into four “tribes” that square off against one another in weekly quizzes. The tribe with the highest score at the end of five weeks, for example, was awarded “immunity” from the midterm exam.
Among the “Survivor” contestants visiting the class Feb. 9 are John Cochran (Survivor: South Pacific), the scrawny, self-deprecating Harvard law student who infuriated fellow contestants and won audience fans by making a bold strategic play that tilted the balance of power in his season; runner-up Stephen Fishbach (Survivor: Tocantins), the brainy Yale graduate who teamed up with a rugged ranch hand to dominate the his season, and who now covers “Survivor” for People magazine’s website; and Jenny Guzon-Bae (Survivor: Cook Islands) who competed on the controversial season in which tribes were broken up by ethnicity.
“College courses on contemporary TV programs are not a new phenomenon,” says Dawson, who teaches radio/television/film in the School of Communication and believes his is the first class to use “Survivor” as a reality TV case study. In recent years Harvard, Berkeley and Middlebury have all offered classes on HBO’s “The Wire,” and a University of North Florida literature professor devoted a semester to the supernatural thriller “Lost.”
Dawson argues that “Survivor” is every bit as deserving of the attention of academics and students as those more prestigious dramas. “’Survivor’ was America's first hit reality show, and it is no exaggeration to say that it changed how audiences think about TV, celebrity and media in general,” he says. “To better understand the state of American TV in the 2000s, there’s no better place to start than with “Survivor.’”
The six “Survivor” alumni are not the only visitors to the Northwestern class. On Feb. 13, Sirius Radio host and website JumpTheShark.com founder Jon Hein will discuss reality TV’s impact on sitcoms and dramas. On March 1, the class will host a reality TV roundtable featuring bloggers Andy Dehnart (RealityBlurred.com) and Genevieve Koski and Marah Eakin (The Onion AV Club). Earlier, television critic Maureen Ryan talked to the class about her work covering the reality TV boom for the Chicago Tribune, AOL and The Huffington Post.
The course, which ends March 9, considers a variety of different reality TV formats — competition shows such as “Top Chef” and “American Idol,” “celebreality” shows like “The Surreal Life” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” makeover shows like “The Swan” and “Bridalplasty,” and shows focused on work like “Deadliest Catch” and “Pawn Stars.”