Competitive Intelligence / Competitive Strategy, by Arik Johnson
by Arik Johnson

And Then There Was One: Richard Hatch, the End-Game Competitor

Does the TV Show "Survivor" represent Survival of the Fittest? Rich's Competitive Strategy Brings Home the Big Prize

Nicolo Machiavelli would've been proud. Richard Hatch appears to have pored over "The Prince" in his preparation for the 39 days he spent on the island in the South China Sea with his 15 compatriots.

The television phenomenon of summer 2000 came to an end this past week when the CBS show "Survivor" became the second-most-watched show of the year with 51.7 million viewers for the show's finale (after the Super Bowl with its 88.5 million viewers, and beat the Academy Awards by a cool 5 million). Love him or hate him, the $1 Million winner Richard Hatch, a determined corporate trainer from Rhode Island, will take home about $550,000 after taxes, plus the car, and first-runner-up Kelly gets $100,000. The other members of the infamous "Alliance", cantankerous old Rudy and sore-losin' Susan, take home far less, but still better than nothing, which is what everyone else got.

How they kept the ultimate winner a secret for the past few months since the actual competition ended this spring is beyond me - vicious threats of lawsuit, I suppose... plus, their instant celebrity has landed more than a couple of our plucky band of no-names on the cover of supermarket tabloids and the Hollywood Squares. So even if everybody didn't walk away with a million bucks, they all will, at least, get their 15 minutes in the spotlight. Hatch is also using the momentum from the opportunity to pitch his own book about social survival and life on the island, and appear as a guest on the MTV Video Music Awards. (Sidebar: CBS, MTV and King World, co-producer of Squares, are all owned by Viacom - in a skillful show of leverage across media properties.)

What's the attraction? Why would one-fifth of Americans, basically everybody watching TV Wednesday night, tune in to a show with such a manufactured scenario and soap opera drama? Is it the harsh reality of it all?

I've decided the obsession with competition, strategy and winning among, at least, American audiences riveted to the screen, highlights the drama we seek out in our own lives -- it's not surprising to me the two-most-watched shows of the year are entirely competitive events with high theatrics in a carnival atmosphere of sight and sound!

And so, the drama ends for our brave castaways' backstabbing, making and breaking of strategic alliances, playing games to root out the weak links and vote them off, and eating their fair shares of live squirming bugs, stinging eels and rats.

And, just like the Super Bowl, Vegas odds makers were running a racket on who'd be the winner. Ironically, Rudy was the odds-on favorite (with 53.47% of the vote), followed by Kelly (22.54%), then Susan (12.22%); but the smart money was on Richard, with almost ten-to-one odds (11.75%).

Rich won because he had a plan… a sinister plan. Like The Prince, he knew that he must not outwardly display his deceitfulness - even though it is necessary to deceive to win; he seemed innocuous and fun loving with his pudgy, kooky, naked dancing and nickname among fellow islanders as "Darth Gaydar". The ultimate vote on or off the island came down to who was able to leverage, not their own strengths, but others weaknesses and appear "least objectionable".

"I really feel that I earned where I am", Richard said later. "The first hour on the island I stepped into my strategy and thought, I'm going to focus on how to establish an alliance with four people early on. I spend a lot of time thinking about who people are and why they interact the way they do, and I didn't want to just hurt people's feelings or do this and toss that one out. I wanted this to be planned and I wanted it to be based on what I needed to do to win the game."

Knowing that he needed to ally himself with others to ensure his survivability through at least the semifinals was the key. Rich sat down and thought about the numbers and odds involved and how often participants would get kicked off and then reasoned with his allies that, if they could just delay the risks associated with actually participating by forming their carefully numbered alliance, they could virtually ensure their group's survival for almost all of the competition. It was postponed until the very end, when each of the allies would be assured receiving at least some reward (money), that, they'd have to betray each other. Only then, would the real competition begin. In reality, the game was "fixed" (by Richard) for the vast majority of the program.

Like most businesses, where competitors are pitched against one another, we see analogs to the drama as it was recently played out on-screen. Most industry leading companies form alliances with competitors in order to leverage their combined strength against the rest of the marketplace. In some sectors, governments have to intervene because these partnerships ultimately break down into anti-competitive oligopolies requiring anti-trust regulation. Which, incidentally, I believe may be the fate of the fast growing "industry marketplaces" recently coming in vogue in lots of different industries. Companies that get too close to one another, in effect, execute de-facto mergers (a little like the various romances on the island) without the benefit of regulatory approvals from the public. Strategic alliances might be good for competition - and consumers. But, oligopolies that can fix prices and regulate supply, like the petroleum producing countries of OPEC, can subject consumers to whatever profit margins they decide they can get away with extracting from their markets.

It's interesting to consider, in the end, perhaps every industry alliance understands that, like the allies on the island, they ultimately have to deceive one another - either into an actual merger or acquisition or some other hostile takeover effort to control the marketplace for their own profit. Contrary to judicial opinion, Microsoft essentially had none of these qualities in its recent forays with the government - the reason it lost was that it fumbled its legal arguments and was just plain too arrogant not to lose the judgment. The sheer arrogance of Gates and Ballmer in their attitudes toward being regulated created the perception of a monopolistic industry hegemon where none before existed. In the end, I predict, the U.S. Supreme Court must overturn Judge Jackson's opinion about its status. It simply can't hold up to objective scrutiny. Microsoft, here's a tip... if at all possible, don't let Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer set foot in the courtroom, let alone tape a statement out of context for presentation. Their cocky attitude will draw this out longer than it needs to.

But, I digress...

So, I have to look back and cheer the popularity of "Survivor", no matter how unsettling "reality television" might seem. It taught the American general public a great deal about competition. Now if they only listen - to how alliances, whether in reality-based game shows, in the business world, sports or other pursuits, ultimately drive home the point that you're still competitors in the end and are driven by a desire to win. While I probably won't watch, I still look forward to "Survivor II: The Australian Outback" (strategically premiering right after the Super Bowl), although not the thought of Richard as host... we've all had quite enough of him, at least for while.

The lessons for business, both great and small alike, is that they should consider the balance of power within their markets and, understanding that competition is still all about winning, make the right alliances with the right partners, knowing it'll still be a dog-eat-dog end-game.

Arik R. Johnson is Managing Director of the Competitive Intelligence (CI) outsourcing & support bureau Aurora WDC. Learn more about Arik at his firm's Web site