Professional researchers spend millions (billions?) of dollars assembling focus groups, market research, and other forms of evaluation methods to determine how to capture the attention (and discretionary income) of the American consumer. In spite of all the academic disciplines applied in these endeavors, the final answer in determining what really sells remains an elusive quantity. For want of any other concrete conclusion, it may safely be said that an overriding motivation is economics.

Even in high-revenue industries such film and television, the issue of finance and production expenses remains a real and compelling issue.

Thusly, periodically segments of the process who feel not adequately compensated rattle the cage for a bigger slice of the pie. Examples of this include the 1988 writer’s strike, which led to the cancellation of several popular prime time shows and shrank audiences as a whole, and the prospect of another strike at the millennium, which led studio bigwigs to seek out alternative viewing fare. This may be a contributing factor in the rise of reality shows, notable “Survivor,” one of the most popular in broadcast history.

For network producers, the appeal of these shows is elementary. Ever conscious of overhead and extraneous expenses that swell the bottom line, the prospect of a prime time entry without all the hassles of high priced (and temperamental) theatrical stars and writing staff is especially compelling for entertainment executives desperate for an edge in the pressure cooker ratings war.

Inspiration from abroad

Curiously, “Survivor” did not originate in America. It was derived from the British “Castaway,” (conceived in 1994 and launched in 2000) which became a hit for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). This initial success was replicated in Sweden with the 1997 “Expedition Robinson (an allusion to the literary classics “Robinson Crusoe” and “Swiss Family Robinson,” two tales of European natives surviving in tropical climates), which pre-dated its 2000 debut in the United States. What we see on primetime has been refurbished with all the production values and bells and whistles of American sensationalism, while keeping the core ingredients that likely keep viewers tuned in for every weekly update: a grouping of individuals who might otherwise not interact in everyday society, and the spectacle of seeing them react under pressure.

The premise of the show is simple enough: divide groups of competitors into two separate “tribes,” place them on an isolated locale, usually a remote island, wherein they must fend for themselves in seeking food and shelter in order to subsist. Periodically these “tribes” are brought together for specific challenges or competitions on the path of determining who is the fittest of the fit. Along the way, this makeshift narrative is enhanced by the participants ability to cooperate, engage, and outwit their compatriots/rivals on the way to a one million dollar cash award as the final “Survivor.”

As one might expect, the assembly of various individuals in a hostile environ leads to internal conflict, manifested in the infamous tribal council ceremonies, in which contestants must account for individual behaviors and indiscretions, with the offending parties being “voted off.”

A personal challenge

A testament to its overall popularity was the competitive process just to apply to appear on the show. Prospective applicants must submit videotapes as a preliminary step before being interviewed. One of those intrigued by this phenomenon was a rising corporate media executive at Times Mirror, which owned the L.A. Times. For Natalie Cole, a self-admitted type “A” personality and natural competitor, the time consuming routine of career progression and raising a family precluded the urge to spread her wings by testing her mettle against other, younger, more viral challengers before a national audience.

Fast forward decades later, children grown and financially solvent, the perks of middle age mean the luxury to reflect and delve into a “bucket list” of fascinating experiences unencumbered by the responsibilities of “the real world.” For Cole, the episode she was about to engage in was not so much a “middle life crisis,” that the opposite gender might undertake in the form of buying a Porsche or acquiring a “trophy wife.” Rather, hers was a continuation of the challenges of climbing the corporate ladder, or launching a private business as a means of “measuring up.”

“I was attracted to going forward as I wanted to prove to myself that I haven’t “aged-out”; that I could do whatever the 20 somethings could do,” she declares.

Abetted solely by the assistance of an offspring with the technical expertise often lacking by contemporaries of her generation, she produced a video “self portrait” to serve as entry in the selection process. A subsequent “audition” before Executive producer/host Jeff Probst had Natalie Cole calmly declaring that she would be standing before as the last (wo)man standing.

“I set goals, gather information and resources to support my goals, visualize myself achieving my goals, and then go after them,” she says of the process that enabled her to reach the apex of the hierarchy of a major newspaper, and establish a successful periodical in the ranks of the Black publishing industry.

Cole credits her local upbringing as preparation for her life successes and suitability for this challenge on in the Mamanuca Islands (Monuriki, the site where they filmed, is the same beach where the 2000 Tom Hanks epic “Cast Away” takes place) in deepest, darkest Fiji.

“Being from South Central LA, one cannot move through the area effectively, safely without having a keen sense of self-awareness and surroundings. How will those skills apply while out on the island…I was definitely curious.”

A significant handicap was the fact that, at 57 she was twice as old as some of her competitors.

Armed with intestinal fortitude and bona fide street credentials, she endured an eight-hour flight into the South Pacific. Upon her arrival, the city girl embraced the pratfalls of life without hot water or modern toiletry (contestants utilized native foliage as sanctuary from the ubiquitous cameras, or simply used the sea as a hygienic refuge).

 The physical ordeal of this outpost from civilization was equaled by the mental stress of dealing in an unfamiliar environment. Mother nature added another hardship in the way of a cyclone on top of the torrential rains common to the area.

A strong constitution

“Is my constitution strong enough for me to effectively manage myself when I am hungry, being bitten by bugs, sleep deprived and don’t have any privacy for weeks on end with a bunch of strangers, some of which I may not like?,” she pondered.

Curiously enough, her most antagonistic relationship during the shoot involved an African American male, someone she initially thought of as a potential ally. Contractually, she is prohibited from revealing the gory details, and so the unfolding drama will not be revealed until the episodes air starting on September 26.

Appealing to the lowest common denominator?

“Their desperation increases as competition from cable grows and the old formulas and formats seem less and less attractive to American viewers.”

—Washington Post critic Tom Shales

“Reality TV to me is the museum of social decay.”

— Academy Award winning actor Gary Oldman

Reality television in general, has had more than their share of detractors. No less a person then talk show pioneer Dick Cavett has compared the contemporary appeal of reality shows to the voyeurism of people who used to attend public lynchings as entertainment in a by gone era.

More than a few other notables within the media decry the popularity of reality shows, citing their possible negative influence on the psyche of our collective consciousness as a whole. There is palatable sadism in watching these non-professional performers struggling in hazardous, possibly embarrassing or humiliating predicaments.

Needless-to-say, television, and most forms of popular entertainment, have gone through the wringer of highbrow criticism at one time or the other.

On a personal level, Cole acknowledges her participation in “Survivor” for practical reasons. While many of her contemporaries have ridden the rails of the media (especially social media) for notoriety in the new category of fame called the “celebritant,” she envisions her tenure in the limelight as a opportunity to “build her brand.”

“There are business benefits to being on ‘Survivor’ as well,” she notes.

“Exposure of my brands to a national platform in a game I love was a no-brainer. As CEO of Our Weekly, the largest audited Black owned newspaper on the west coast and CEO of Kalaiaah, a natural and organic skin care line, putting myself out there for national exposure is high level strategy in disguise.”

Her “performance” captured digitally, Cole is bracing for vast exposure that may or may not be positive. One prominent show pigeonholed one of its contestants as the angriest Black woman in the world, while its host used it as a platform for high political office.

“My next challenge is to handle the stresses of watching the season where I can be portrayed negatively and where viewers will post negative comments online about my personality, physical appearance…” she admits.

“In fact, two of my castmates has already started receiving such ugly comments on their social media accounts. People get lost in the fact that what they are watching on T V is a character, not the person and maybe more importantly, it is a game.”

“Survivor: David vs. Goliath,” premieres Sept. 26 on CBS