Survivor and Big Brother owe much to their predecessor MTV's The Real World which has been around for nine seasons. The concept of the Real World was to put a group of Gen Xers together in a house and watch them 24/7 to see what happens. Viewers were able to see group dynamics from a safe perspective in the comfort of their living rooms.
With the advent of Survivor a new dynamic has been introduced. The producers of Survivor introduced the master stroke of combining Reality TV with a game show. The game show (in which one person is voted off at the end of every episode) introduces a steady stream of conflict which greatly enhances the social experiment. Make no mistake -- this is a major milestone in television history. It is the culmination of game show, talk show, and drama. One wonders how far we are away from the ultimate game show in which someone dies at the end.
Mortality is not a concern with the Survivor cast (thanks to the omni presence of the production crew). Their main concern is winning the game show. While the audience may be interested in the game at one level they are much more concerned with a deeper level -- It is office politics laid bare. Voting people out is a mechanism that allows the viewers to see how group politics operate. Just as in life people form alliances both formal and unstated. Those who win favor with one alliance risk losing favor with another alliance. The viewers are able to experience the conflict without getting their hands dirty. For the first time in human history they are able to witness conflict not just from their own lonely perspective, but from a multitude of perspectives -- from the protagonist to the antagonist to the innocent and not so innocent bystanders. Many have suggested that this is merely a forum for amateur actors, but these actors have no scripts, and they are participating in an atmosphere that has been designed to catch them off guard. It is one thing to posture for 8 hours a day at the office, but if you are posturing 24/7 for 4-10 weeks, it isn't posturing anymore -- It's reality. A reality that was not lost on the psychology department at Harvard. They requested (but were denied) access to the Survivor island during taping.
This is a game that is designed to reflect life. While talent and effort are considered in the equation, no single character trait or group of skills can guarantee victory. It is a working illustration of the words of Ecclesiastes: "The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. (9.11)" Time generally favors those with better qualities, however chance plays no favorites. Whoever comes out on top in Survivor/Big Brother owes much to chance -- the chance that they were on the show in the first place, the chance that any one of the variables (fellow contestants, who would win various games, who would lose the votes) could have easily been different. No one is immune to the effects of time and chance.
The concept has drawn the familiar criticism that the media is promoting bad behavior. While this may have some validity, I think the shows intend to reveal behavior that already exists, and they are much more a public service than a public menace.