Sunday, April 11, 2010

Survivorman: The Man For Survival

Survivorman, the bug eating, trap setting, fire starting, urine drinking survival expert has provided entertainment and education for Discovery Channel viewers since his introduction to the cable lineup. The mysterious “Survivorman” referred to is none other than Les Stroud, a survival expert that provides watchers the entertainment of being immersed in real survival situations. He has travelled to the Rockies, Australia, and many places between to show viewers how to survive in unforgiving environments. Some think he is a nut, some think he is strong-willed, but most will agree that he is an education provider to some extent. This status as educator brings Les’ ethos into question, as he carries the burden of fairly and correctly informing the public.
Les embraced his challenge and provided Discovery Channel viewers with three solid seasons of entertaining and insightful programming. Following the success of Survivorman, a new survival expert rose to fame. Bear Grylls of Man vs. Wild appears to be an upgraded version of Les. He is a young and fit expert that can do things that the older Survivorman just cannot physically do. Bear may operate differently, but he too is considered an educator of the masses. Les Stroud is a better survival expert than Bear Grylls because of Les’ use of efficient, non-flashy techniques and also his commitment to “all natural” survival situations that have not been interfered or tampered with. These standards, best presented by the particular episode of “Survivorman: Kalahari”, allow Les to better serve the public as an educator rather than just a T.V. personality.

The opening music plays, and the digital globe pinpoints where the adventure is taking place in the episode. Les describes the unfavorable situation that he is about to be immersed in. The safety crew leads him to his desolate location, and then they strand him. We absorb the flashes of light that our televisions project, but exactly what are we watching when we watch Survivorman? It is a unique show on a unique channel, a careful mixture of elements that could potentially be hazardous if combined in the wrong way. The Discovery Channel provides scientific education to the audience in entertaining ways. Oftentimes, the boundaries between information and entertainment can become blurry, so it is important to recognize just who is claiming what, and whether or not they are qualified to make such statements given the differing public images attached to these providers. “Education” is what much of the Discovery Channel’s programming considers itself to be, so it is imperative that we know just what it is. In the sense of television shows, Discovery Channel has the power of deciding just what education is, as it has already established itself as a channel of that genre. This power is exerted upon the viewers of the program, as they accept the validity of the station. The T.V. tells us that what we are watching on Discovery is enhancing our knowledge, but should a sometimes deceptive show such as Man vs. Wild be allowed to be grouped with these informative shows? That is why the authenticity and legitimacy of Survivorman’s actions are so important; they have embraced the educational burden and stuck to the informative theme of television programming. The audience that accepts the two shows as deliverers of fact must know what they are watching. They are the group that can be affected most by legitimate or tainted information. They are the people that may use what Bear and Les have taught, so hopefully they learn all the right and truthful things.

Les Stroud shows strands of what he represents in an episode in season three where he makes a visit to the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. This particular episode revealed much more about Les’ character than any other single episode, so it is worthy of inspection. In “Survivorman: Kalahari”, Les faces more hardships than usual in this 140° F weather, even claiming that one night was the “toughest night of survival (he’s) ever experienced.” Equipped with only a gasless car and the assortment of things inside of it, Survivorman took on the elements. His week spent in the desert was not filled with heart-pounding excitement, but rather just an account of the strategies he used to survive. There was no fast-paced tribal drum background music that accompanies action scenes in Man vs. Wild, but Survivorman doesn’t need that. In fact, Les argues against large spurts of energy consumption in many of his episodes. He explains that too much activity increases the risk for injury and requires more food consumption to replenish energy. A more conservative approach to survival, Les’ style is more fitting for an audience that values education. This is the audience that he best speaks to.

Image Credit: Screenshot from "Survivorman: Kalahari" from

Les conserves a lot of energy. It's all a part of his survival strategy.

In “Survivorman: Kalahari”, Les had the absolute need to be as efficient and non-flashy as possible. In this episode, Survivorman was to stay there a whole week, but he was only given “20 L of water in the truck… a four days’ supply.” Sure, there are episodes where he was not provided any water at all, but the safety crew felt it was necessary to provide him some in this episode due to the absence of any large water sources in the Kalahari. Still, water was scarce. Les couldn’t run around after the gazelles he spotted, nor could he trek all day in search for an oasis. It was all about the conservation necessary to survive. He didn’t have much food either. While there, Surviorman only ate seeds from a camelthorn tree, one locust, six scorpions, remnants of a near-empty jelly jar from the truck, and an ostrich egg. Les, through this realistic view of food and water scarcity, shows the viewer the real situation regarding most survival environments. This has much exigence for the audience, as educationally-concerned individuals can better benefit from a “real situation.” After all, if they were to be immersed in a similar survival situation, the audience would want to know how survival is truthfully done, not just how a fabricated or polished event was executed. His case informs us that we cannot expend all of our energy and expect to replenish it by means of food and water. Survivorman is unique in its dedication to the conservative and realistic. In an example from “Survivorman: Kalahari”, Les points out a brush field and states that he will avoid this area because it is “nasty cape cobra territory.” This emphasis on avoidance educates the viewer on how to navigate around dangerous situations. In Man vs. Wild, Bear tends to educate through mistake correction and counterintuitive actions. For example, in the episode Man vs. Wild: Texas, he encounters a venomous snake and kills it with a stick and rock. Defenders of Bear might say that this event does communicate how to effectively kill a snake, but the bottom line is that it is not usually what one would do given Bear’s survival situation. It is a risk that cannot be taken, and Bear’s actions may lead on the audience that values education to partake in such dangerous actions.

Image Credit: Screenshot compilation from "Man vs. Wild: Texas" via Edited by Willie Tanigaki.

I do agree that it is important to show methods that are alternative to the correct way. After all, common viewers that find themselves in survival situations are not often survival experts that always do the right things. Man vs. Wild often neglects to even show the correct method of action though, and this is dangerous for the audience. Just like the case of the cape cobra brush field, Survivorman saved his scarce energy and avoided the dangerous situation. Les described his survival mindset in “Survivorman: Kalahari” by stating that “it’s all about bettering the odds.” This is a much more functional and level-headed assessment of survival than Bear’s. Even if he made the one mistake of encountering a snake, Les would not have compounded the error by further disturbing the snake.

Image Credit: Screenshot compilation from "Survivorman: Kalahari" via Edited by Willie Tanigaki.

The risk-reward model for decision is often skewed in Man vs. Wild due to the presence of a camera crew that has access to antitoxins, bandages, and other medical gear. Granted, the camera crew allows Bear to execute more extreme activities that Survivorman can’t do. Survivorman operates without a camera crew. He only knows the location of the safety crew in case he gets seriously injured. Because of the greater sense of solitude in Survivorman, Les makes his decisions with the mindset of a stranded individual. Survivorman may not be the most exciting program, but it projects a situation that is not deceptive or misleading to an individual that might suffer the misfortune of being placed in a comparable scenario.

There is a bottom line to the television industry. Man vs. Wild, largely due to the aforementioned flashy style, generated higher ratings than Survivorman. Man vs. Wild helped Discovery Channel become “the #1 non-sports cable network for men 18-49 and men 18-34” (Seidman) on Wednesday nights. These results are hard to argue with for any company, and likely will allow stations to more loosely define education. More viewers will ultimately yield a more informed public about survival situations, regardless of the message. Defenders of Man vs. Wild might say that a show that is more or less legitimate and brings in whopping ratings, is doing a better deed to the public than a show that is completely authentic but has only a small following. Proponents of Man vs. Wild will also support the idea that Bear forcing himself into unfavorable situations such as the snake encounter will help out survival novices more than Survivorman, who only teaches the way to do it right the first time. These are valid arguments, but Man vs. Wild gives the audience a false perception of what is possible when in survival situations, and this cannot simply be ignored.

Survivorman put a large emphasis on keeping his show authentic. That is, he tried to keep his show a survival documentary of a single, stranded person. This meant only having a safety crew miles away in case Les got severely injured, and not having a camera crew at all. In “Survivorman: Kalahari,” Les was required to “carry 55 pounds of camera gear in his backpack everywhere he went.” This was all part of his dedication to keeping the solitary survival situation authentic. To film himself walking through a scene, Les had to set up his cameras, walk through the shot, and then retrace his steps to pick up the camera gear that he used to capture the shot. This tedious process was all in effort for true authenticity, a most important facet of Survivorman’s ethos. His character and credibility are of utmost importance as seen by his deliberate efforts to remain alone with nature.

Image Credit: Screenshot compilation from "Survivorman: Kalahari" via Edited by Willie Tanigaki.

Bear Grylls sacrifices his authenticity with the presence of his camera crew. In an article by Reuters regarding allegations made about Bear’s authenticity, it was discovered and backed that “isolated elements of the 'Man vs. Wild' show in some episodes were not natural to the environment” (Wallenstein). Among this group of discoveries was aid that was given to Bear on his building of rafts and shelters. The producers of Man vs. Wild stated that “shows that are to be repeated will be edited appropriately” (Wallenstein). Their motivation in editing was to give credit to the camera crew whenever they helped out. This was done with a narrative voice over of the action shots. Sure, the exclusion of acknowledging the camera crew every time something is done will make for time available for Bear to do more activities, but this lack of explanation of the true situation brings into question just what else Bear has been hiding from us.

Image Credit: Screenshot compilation from "Man vs. Wild: Outtakes" via Edited by Willie Tanigaki.

Survivorman never had these issues because he wanted to act in true solitude, and he simply didn’t have the temptation present even if he wanted help. Bear was also reported to have been placed in artificial situations to show his survival techniques, such as his seemingly happenstance encounter with “what are referred to as wild horses that were brought in from a trekking station” (Wallenstein). This can create dangerous perceptions on the likelihood of encountering favorable objects in the wild. Also, these horses that were planted for him were used to more human contact than truly wild horses, creating misconceptions on the easiness of taming them. Similar to the aid by the camera crew, the creation of situations for the benefit of the show is fine… the show just can’t pretend to be something that it is not. This will harm the educationally-concerned audience. Man vs. Wild could have simply revealed that this situation was set up by the directors, but instead the show omits that crucial information. I agree that certain situations are important for the viewers to see, but I just don’t agree with Man vs. Wild’s methods of presentation. Any situation that arose in Survivorman was real and unaided, projecting a true view of nature and giving advice for real situations. In “Survivorman: Kalahari,” Les catches a cold on his first night, but comments that “you can’t pick the times that you’re going to fall into the peril,” so he continues with the show. He eventually can’t handle his desperate situation anymore and says “I can’t continue… I’ve gone 48 hours without water… the safety crew camp is a few hours walk from here. So, I’m going home.” This is a real situation. His failure solidified his dedication to authenticity, as he favored truth over embellishment. This is a very ethical approach to maintaining an image in the television business.

Image Credit: Screenshot compilation from "Survivorman: Kalahari" via Edited by Willie Tanigaki.

This text flashes in the introduction of every episode... a good synopsis of what Survivorman represents.

Survivorman’s non-flashiness and authenticity combine to give him a very important thing: credibility. It is an important item to have when one is considered an educator of the masses. In “Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography” by John Long, the same claim for “credibility” is supported (Long 666). Regarding photojournalists, he says that “without credibility we have nothing” (Long 667). Photojournalists, in similar fashion to T.V. survival experts’ classification, are educators of the masses too. While survival experts provide education geared toward techniques to make it out of hostile situations alive, photojournalists give viewers insight regarding how events unfolded. So photojournalists too, have this burden of educational purity. With truth, like Survivorman’s case, they can effectively get their ideas across and maintain the ethical necessity to remain undeceiving. With preconceived “photo ops” (Long 667) and manipulative “photoshopping” (Long 669), photojournalists fail at their task of being information messengers. These photo ops and photoshopping are comparable to creation of unrealistic scenarios and unseen aid by camera crews, as both sets are implemented without the viewers’ knowledge. They deceive the audience that trusted them as knowledge providers. Survivorman and ethical photojournalists can be grouped together by how they both maintain their legitimacy by presenting the plain facts and not manipulating the situation. Long says that “we cannot make informed choices for our society unless we have access to fair and accurate information” (Long 667). Survivorman may not provide societal choices, but with his own “fair and accurate information”, viewers of his program can better understand how to survive, which will help them make informed survival choices.

As his name implies, Survivorman is the man for survival. He has moved on from Survivorman to feature on programs about surviving sharks, surviving urban disasters, and surviving Everest. He is a highly respected survival expert, given his wide variety of shows he has been featured on, and he appears to be an honest and ethical man, given the format of Survivorman. Because he is authentic, real, and not overly-flashy, we can feel his pleasure when he finally achieves success, such as when he eats the ostrich egg in “Survivorman: Kalahari”, where he comments that “this is the best egg that I’ve ever eaten (followed by mmms and ahhs).” He is on level with us, and we embrace his lessons. Les showed us the efficient and traditional ways to survive, and he showed them in authentic situations. The entire concerned community of viewers that places an emphasis on education requires authenticity and credibility. Survivorman provides them with those, which makes him the superior survival expert.

Works Cited
Long, John. “Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography.” Seeing and Writing 3. Donald McQuade and Christine McQuade. Boston: Bedford, 2006. 666-68. Print.
"Man vs. Wild: Outtakes." Man vs. Wild. Discovery Channel. 17 Dec. 2009. Web. Transcript. 5 Apr. 2010.
“Man vs. Wild: Texas.” Man vs. Wild. Discovery Channel. 2 Sept. 2009. Discovery Channel Online. Web. Transcript. 8 Mar. 2010. .
"Man vs. Wild: Texas." Man vs. Wild. Discovery Channel. 2 Sept. 2009. Web. Transcript. 5 Apr. 2010.
Seidman, Robert. “Discovery’s MAN VS. WILD Pulls In Record Ratings on Wednesday.” TV by the Numbers. N.p., 7 Jan. 2010. Web. 8 Mar. 2010. .
“Survivorman: Kalahari.” Survivorman. Discovery Channel. 10 Aug. 2007. Iphim.TV. Web. Transcript. 2 Mar. 2010. .
"Survivorman: Kalahari." Survivorman. Discovery Channel. 10 Aug. 2007. Web. Transcript. 5 Apr. 2010.
Wallenstein, Andrew. “Discovery’s ‘Wild’ man not so brave: report.” Reuters 24 July 2007: n. pag. Reuters. Web. 9 Mar. 2010. .

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