The familiar tribal chants will ring loudly as Viacom's (NYSE:VIA) CBS kicks off its new season of the popular reality series Survivor tonight. Yes, sheep farmers and mechanical bull operators will face off in the South Pacific, being picked off one by one until the final favorite emerges a million bucks richer -- before taxes and mosquito repellent endorsements, of course.

Go back a few years when television shows were richly scripted and the grip of reality television may come as a surprise. Yet every network has a flagship show these days where fellow commoners stumble into your living room weekly with a good dash of competitive spirit. Disney's (NYSE:DIS) ABC has The Bachelor. General Electric's (NYSE:GE) NBC has The Apprentice (which more than a few of us are watching together). Fox (NYSE:FOX) has practically reinvented the music industry with American Idol. Even the typically distant UPN is milking the horse-drawn Amish in the City buggy with ease.

Yet one has to wonder if this would have even been possible if it wasn't for Survivor, now a seasoned veteran in the programming battle as it enters its ninth installment.

What the networks do with this usually affordable block of programming remains to be seen. CBS used Survivor as a platform to launch CSI as a Thursday night follow-up, and now a successful CSI has started to sprout siblings of its own on other nights. This is important because the networks and production studios still need to harness original content, because reality television has proven to be a flop when it comes to reruns and the potential for lucrative syndication royalties.

While ABC never managed to cash in on the success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? -- even as it grew to occupy four hourly slots a week -- today the networks know better. So as 18 camera-friendly contestants put on their best game face in Vanuatu, we know that the real game of Survivor is taking place behind the scenes -- with the plotting networks.

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Will you be tuning in to tonight's Survivor debut or have you given up on the lost islanders? Who do you think stands the best shot to win it all out in the South Pacific? All this and more -- in theSurvivordiscussion board. Only on

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz will be watching tonight -- even though he was sorely let down by the All-Star edition. He owns shares in Viacom and Disney but of no other company mentioned in this story.