'Survivor' sharpens up with HD

Exotic locales make changeover a challenge for CBS

Survivors ready ... for HD?

The eight-year-old reality competition series is finally getting upgraded to high definition. Next fall's 17th outing will be the first time the show's exotic locations, elaborate challenges and gruesome bug bites will be available in the widescreen HD format.

CBS announced the production upgrade at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas on Sunday.

"Shooting in high definition gives our production team tools for storytelling beyond what was previously possible and will give our loyal audience an enhanced viewing experience," said Ghen Maynard, executive vp alternative programming at CBS Paramount Entertainment Group. " 'Survivor's' locations and natural elements have always served as another character in the show and an important part of the competition. With HD, viewers will feel as if they are on location instead of in their living room."

The first programs to adopt HD were highly rated sports events like the Super Bowl and scripted dramas that attracted affluent demographics such as NBC's "The West Wing" and HBO's "The Sopranos." In recent years, top-shelf reality shows have gotten in on the act. Fox launched "American Idol" and ABC debuted "Dancing With the Stars" in standard definition, then upgraded the shows to HD once they proved popular enough to warrant the additional production cost.

Nearly all primetime broadcast dramas and comedies are shot in HD, but only a few unscripted shows use the format. In recent seasons, "Survivor" has often ranked as the highest-rated primetime show shot in standard definition. Fans have clamored for the globe-trotting show to get an HD makeover, but there were a couple of stumbling blocks.

For a while, HD cameras were still considered more clunky and less reliable than their standard-definition counterparts -- not a good fit for being dragged around a rainy tropical beach, shooting physical competitions where capturing every second counts. Plus, the cost of upgrading an elaborate on-location production like "Survivor" to HD is higher than a studio-based series like "Idol" or "Dancing." All told, "Survivor" uses about 20 cameras, with some for shooting underwater and from helicopters.

During the past couple years, HD camera reliability has improved greatly, and the cost has become more comparable to standard-definition equipment. For the upgrade, CBS is partnering with Sony, which previously supplied the show's SD system.

"Sony's XDCAM HD system will start a new era for 'Survivor,' " executive producer Mark Burnett said. "The camcorder brings the exotic locales to life brilliantly, creating an immediacy that draws viewers right into the frame. This is something we'd been looking to do for some time, and now it has become a reality."

CBS has not announced plans to upgrade their other reality travelogue, "The Amazing Race." But the higher-rated "Survivor" going HD should be an encouraging sign for "Race" fans.