Survivor: Behind The Scenes Of America’s Original Reality Show

Survivor is commonly considered the leader of American reality TV. The suspenseful, dramatic show is filled with encounters that challenge players’ minds, creativity, and endurance, as players fight to the finish for the $1,000,000 grand prize.

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It was the first highly-rated and profitable reality program on broadcast television in the United States, and it’s considered one of the best shows of the 2000s. The program has received several Emmy Award nominations and its first 11 seasons rated among the top 10 most-watched shows of its time.

Check out these bits of trivia and behind-the-scenes facts about the realities of Survivor.

You Don’t See Everything

While the program tells its stories in full, there are many parts of production that viewers don’t see. Producers end up with thousands of hours of footage that have to be condensed into 13 episodes.

You Don’t See Everything

And when viewers tune in to watch a challenge, they won’t see the 75 producers and crew members who are responsible for filming, capturing audio, taking notes, and observing. The scenes and footage that are clipped, however, don’t affect the storytelling. The show has come under fire repeatedly for their practice of leaving key scenes out. Many feel that this isn’t an honest “reality TV show” for this reason.

The Cast

Survivor often casts actors, models, and people who haven’t even watched the show. This is because they don’t receive enough quality applications.

The Cast

Lynne Spillman, the crew member in charge of casting for both Survivor and The Amazing Race, has said in interviews that the show receives tens of thousands of applications. Truthfully, though, it turns out that most applications aren’t from people who the show would consider to be good candidates. So the show recruits “mactors” who might not have heard of the show at all. Still, some of the show’s recruited castaways end up being very popular, like Yau-Man Chan, pictured here. And this “non-reality” type of casting is another reason Survivor has taken critical heat over the years.

Wardrobe Is Personal, But Filtered

Cast members do bring their own clothing items to their Survivor location, though producers go through the belongings to select what the contestants will be allowed to bring to their camp.

Wardrobe Is Personal, But Filtered

Prohibited items include shirts and hats with corporate logos. The crew also filters by color, removing any patterns or shades that won’t look good on camera. This clothing selection process also lets producers make sure that players won’t all be wearing the same colors of clothing. The thorough search process also ensures that Survivor cast members aren’t smuggling food, matches, or other items to the camp.

What Do They Do All Day?

The Survivor cast doesn’t do that much. On-site producers will periodically pull cast members away from the group in order to film confessional interviews. Contestants also compete in challenges on two out of every three days.

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Beyond that, though, it’s up to the Survivor contestants to amuse themselves, whether they’re choosing to forage for food, develop game strategies, or just sit around and talk. There are also chores to be done—contestants wash their clothes in ocean water, for example. Generally, these cast members are eating much less than they do at home, so they’re more apt to be lazy in between more demanding activities.

Some Hygiene Products Are Allowed … SOME …

Survivor contestants do have access to some necessary personal hygiene items. Women have access to menstrual products and birth control, and players are all able to bring any vital medications to the island. If players wear contacts, they have access to contact lens solution on set as well. Sunscreen and insect repellent are also available.

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Aside from these items, though, contestants are on their own. No razors, toothbrushes, or other conveniences are on site. But who said that women (or men) need to shave in the first place? When a couple of Survivor contestants end up hooking up, it leaves viewers wondering how enjoyable it is, considering the bad breath they’re probably dealing with.

The Crew Lives Better

The crew’s living arrangements depend on where Survivor is located for the season. Accommodations range from tents to actual hotels. In Survivor: Gabon, basecamp was a two-hour boat ride from the only major city in the country. Much of basecamp here consisted of a large and temporary tent city. The crew, from producers to the show’s host, Jeff Probst, lived in tents until prefabricated cabins could be assembled nearby.

The Crew Lives Better

The crew works out of trailers or cargo containers doubling as offices. Some offices are prefabricated and assembled on site. Everyone on the crew eats meals in a large catering tent, which opens as early as four in the morning for those who need to be on location early.

Always Watching

Survivor cast members are really never alone. When they’re taking care of any bathroom rituals, of course, they have privacy, but other than that, the cameras are always watching.

Always Watching

Producers and camera operators stay at the Survivor camps throughout the entire day and night. This ensures that they don’t miss any footage, and it also ensures the cast’s safety. The crew works nearby in off-limits, camouflaged areas known as camera camps. These camps have cots, food, and equipment storage, and they’re very primitive when compared to the show’s basecamp. Tribe camp crews work different shifts, so they return to basecamp in a rotation.

What Happens During Emergencies?

While the show may champion its endurance-challenging, survival-testing setup and challenges, producers are still prepared for anything in terms of medical care and emergencies.

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On-location producers mention any health concerns to medical staff, and producers can call for medics in case of an emergency. Before and after every challenge, contestants have individual visits with the show’s medics, as well. A show medic once said, “During the game, though, they’re playing the game of Survivor for $1 million. So, we try to have as little to do with them as possible.” He added that minor injuries are “part of the game.”

Medical Evacuation

Survivor‘s first medical emergency occurred in season two when two-time contestant Michael Skupin inhaled smoke, passed out, and fell into a burning fire at camp.

Medical Evacuation

The burn wounds on his hands were too severe to be treated on location and he was medically evacuated from the game. Major injuries do force out contestants from time to time. The minor injuries or illnesses that occur with Survivor most frequently affect the show’s hundreds of crew members, who greatly outnumber the 18 contestants. In the years since his time on Survivor, Skupin has accrued quite an arrest record. He was charged with six counts of possession of child pornography in a February 2016 arrest.

Contestants Are Transported To New Locations

Survivor contestants are often shown walking off with packs and hiking sticks, causing it to appear that they have traveled for miles on foot. Those cut scenes are only the first or last part of their trips, however. Contestants are transported between locations.

Contestants Are Transported To New Locations

In Survivor: Gabon, contestants were driven to locations in vehicles with black plastic covering the windows. This prevented contestants from seeing their locations, as well as behind-the-scenes production, including the crew’s base camp. Once contestants arrive on location, they’re kept in a waiting area until they are called to the challenge or scene by Jeff Probst. Cast members aren’t allowed to speak to each other until the cameras are on, ensuring that the show’s fans won’t miss any important moments.

Challenges Are Extensively Prepared

When it’s time for a Survivor challenge, the contestants receive much more information than were ever given on the show’s finished product. John Kirhoofer, the leader of the show’s challenge development team, walks through the challenges with each tribe. Tribe members can use this time to ask questions or strategize. The separate consultation with tribes lets each tribe form their own game plans and strategies.

Challenges Are Extensively Prepared

A member of the standards and practices division of CBS is on site, too, for these briefings. This crew member makes sure that each tribe has the same basic pieces of information in order to keep the contest fair.

Developing Challenges

A group named the Dream Team helps to develop and test the show’s challenges. Many of these young crew members return to work on the show’s future seasons in other production roles.

Developing Challenges

The Dream Team runs through challenges at least twice, including once with the challenge production team. They test the mechanics of a challenge and even participate in a dress rehearsal while the crew films their actions. This gives the crew a chance to practice the filming and learn where they’ll need to be in order to capture the greatest shots. That dress rehearsal footage is shown to viewers while Jeff Probst presents the challenge to the cast.

Filming From The Sky

The aerial shots of challenge locations are filmed separately from the gameplay. These scenes are shot from helicopters and this ensures that equipment and crew members aren’t seen on the final televised product.

Filming From The Sky

The Dream Team members are also used as stand-ins for very distant helicopters. This is necessary because any wide-angle shot of a challenge would show cranes, cameras, and over 50 crew members. It helps paint a better picture of the action without any of the extra details. The helicopter shots are filmed after a challenge when the competition is over and the crew has left with equipment.

Tribal Council Takes Forever

Tribal Council is filled with the moments that viewers spend the whole show waiting for. It’s the end of an episode, filled with energy and conflict. The players arrive from their travels in a vehicle and exchange words with each other. Contestants will get into arguments or heated discussions, and tension rises until Jeff tells the tribes that it’s voting time.

Tribal Council Takes Forever

The process only appears to take a few minutes, but in reality, camera crews are on set for anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes. The crew shoots plenty of footage and trims it all down for the finished product.

Vote Revelation Is Rehearsed For Maximum Drama

Once host Jeff Probst has collected the votes, he consults with Survivor‘s producers. Teams of crew members have been watching the confessional footage live in a production booth offsite. The production staff takes the details they’ve learned and the actual vote outcome to determine the order in which Jeff will read off votes to the show’s contestants.

Vote Revelation Is Rehearsed For Maximum Drama

Jeff reads votes aloud in a predetermined order that maximizes drama, and the show’s producers select which contestants’ votes will be shown on television. This is why the votes revealed first are votes that viewers have already seen the contestants cast.

Cut Contestants Don’t Get To Go Home

Once cast members are voted off, they’re taken to Ponderosa, a nearby camp or facility. These cast members still attend Tribal Council every third day. The contestants don’t return to their homes until the show’s filming is over.

Cut Contestants Don’t Get To Go Home

When contestants don’t make the jury, they typically leave the site altogether and stay elsewhere until the game is over. CBS recently began airing an online-only series that details life at Ponderosa. Jury members often get to enjoy cleaning up and enjoying nutritious food once again, and some viewers say that the online footage from Ponderosa can be even more entertaining than Survivor itself.

The Original Reality Show

The U.S. version of Survivor remains one of the longest-running reality series on television. It’s well past 30 seasons today, and the fact that it’s been airing for 16 years proves it has a very loyal and returning fanbase.

The Original Reality Show

The show is filmed around the clock for seven weeks, resulting in thousands of hours of footage that are condensed into only 13 hours of aired programming. Host Jeff Probst won the first Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program in September 2008. He won the same award again in 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Body Doubles, Reenactments

Back in 2001, Survivor‘s executive producer Mark Burnett admitted that scenes were occasionally reenacted. This allowed camera crews to film a more picturesque shot than they may have originally captured.

Body Doubles, Reenactments

Burnett also admitted to using body doubles and said he sees no reason why reality should stand in the way of production value. “This is not a documentary,” he told Reuters. “Nothing that we do changes the dramatic outcome, or the sporting outcome or the emotional outcome of anything.” He went on to explain that re-shooting a scene with body doubles only functioned to improve the show’s aesthetics.

Notable Contestant: Jonny Fairplay

Jon P. Dolton, known by Survivor fanatics as Jonny Fairplay, is well-known for his antics and betrayal on Survivor: Pearl Islands. Host Jeff Probst calls Dalton’s work the “greatest lie in Survivor history.” Before he left for the show, Dalton told a friend that if the friend was ever invited on the show, he should tell him that his grandmother had died.

Notable Contestant: Jonny Fairplay

There was a “loved one” challenge, and Dalton’s friend stuck to their plan and told him that his grandmother had died. Other Survivor contestants felt sympathy for Dalton and allowed him to win the reward, later finding out that it was all made up.

Notable Challenge: Survivor Smorgasbord

A gross food challenge debuted on Survivor: Borneo and was used in many later seasons. In Survivor: Africa, contestants learned of how local tribes couldn’t rely on meat and vegetables for nutrients and instead drank the milk and blood of cows.

Notable Challenge: Survivor Smorgasbord

Contestants were tasked with finishing a shot of cow’s blood mixed with milk, and every tribe member finished the drink. This resulted in a tiebreaker round where two contestants had to finish a full glass of pure cow’s blood. The show’s less disgusting challenges tested the cast members’ mental acuity, physical strength, and endurance. When competing to win $1,000,000, it’s worth it.

An International Sensation

While some people might think of Survivor as a quintessentially American reality television show, the popular, award-winning franchise is actually an international one. The American incarnation of the series is based on the Swedish television series, Expedition Robinson.

An International Sensation

Expedition Robinson premiered in 1997, three years before the American version of the show aired. Charlie Parsons actually developed the format for the show in 1994 and intended to produce it in the United Kingdom, but the Swedish debut made it to the air first. Parsons would go on to co-executive produce the American version of the show with Mark Burnett.

A Literary Tradition

The name of the Swedish version of the series, Expedition Robinson, comes from the titles of two classic literary works which both feature shipwrecked survivors on deserted islands struggling for survival.

A Literary Tradition

The first book, Robinson Crusoe, is a 1719 novel by the English writer Daniel Defoe. Robinson Crusoe, the title character, is a castaway who spends nearly three decades on a remote tropical desert island before being rescued. It is thought to be based on the story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish man who lived for four years on a remote Pacific Island. The novel also inspired the Tom Hanks film, Castaway.

Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe was the novel which pioneered the literary genre of realistic fiction. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, many other survivor and castaway novels were written and became popular. Notable examples include Gulliver’s Travels, and Treasure Island.

Robinson Crusoe

Just as Robinson Crusoe helped to popularize realistic fiction, Survivor popularized reality television. The show is considered to be the prime example of reality television as it was the first highly rated and profitable reality show to air in the United States. It turns out that people really like stories of heroes in disastrous situations making the best of what they have and ultimately overcoming all of the obstacles which they face!

The Swiss Family Robinson

The second novel from which Expedition Robinson takes its name is the 1812 Swiss novel by Johann David Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson. The novel is about a shipwrecked family who builds their own settlement on the island where they are stranded.

The Swiss Family Robinson

Wyss, a pastor, wanted to write a story which was similar to that of Robinson Crusoe but also taught family values along with other moral lessons to his children. The novel became a collaborative between Wyss and his sons. One of his sons, Johann Rudolf Wyss edited the novel, and another son, Johann Emmanuel Wyss, illustrated the story.

A Long List Of Awards

The American version of the show has been incredibly successful. The first eleven seasons of the show were rated in the top ten of the most watched television shows. It has garnered many Emmy Award nominations, winning for Outstanding Sound Mixing in 2001 and Outstanding Special Class Program in 2002. It was also nominated four times for Outstanding Reality Competition Program.

A Long List Of Awards

Jeff Probst won Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality Competition Program four times. The series has been included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 greatest television shows of all time. TV Guide has also ranked it as one of the best series of all time.

The Car Curse

One of the strangest things to occur on the set of Survivor is the infamous car curse. In some seasons, a car has been offered as an award on the show, closer to the end of the contest. When offered as a reward, the winner of the car has been the person who wins a Reward Challenge.

The Car Curse

You’d think that a person who won the special challenge to get a car would be great at the game and have a good shot of going on to win the whole thing, right? Wrong. No person who has won the car has ever won the entire competition. The phenomenon has become so notorious that it has been labeled the car curse.

Survivor Merchandise

Survivor’s success has resulted in all sorts of merchandise tied to the show being manufacture. Its popularity dating back to the first season has inspired a wide variety of items. The earliest products that came from the show were souvenir type items such as water bottles, hats, and t-shirts.

Survivor Merchandise

As the popularity of Survivor grew, so did the number of products available for purchase. Now, fans of the hit reality survival show can purchase mugs, jewelry, party kits, books, soundtracks, and more. The franchise has proved to be an incredibly marketable one; fans are excited about bringing home a piece of the show.

Survivor Video Games

There are even video games based on the show Survivor! The first computer game came out in 2001, just a year after the show aired on American television. The video game was developed for PC by Infogrames. The game allowed players to create characters based on the Pulau Tiga and Australian Outback cast members.

Survivor Video Games

In the game, players were able to pretend that they were on the set of Survivor. Just like on the show, their characters had skills (such as fishing, cooking, hunting, etc.) formed alliance with each other, and voted off their competition at the tribal council meetings.

A Flop

Despite the popularity of the show, the Survivor game did not go over so well with critics. Game Revolution gave it their lowest score ever, an F minus, inspiring an interactive review where users could make a choice from a drop down menu to describe “The Survival periods are about as much fun as” and then choose from “watching paint dry/throbbing hemorrhoids/staring at air/being buried alive.”

A Flop

They weren’t the only ones to slam the game. GameSpot gave the Survivor game a 2 out of 10 and said “If you’re harboring even a tiny urge to buy this game, please listen very carefully to this advice: Don’t do it.”

Online Games

Despite the failure of the first Survivor game, people still kept trying to create a better one. In the first seasons of Survivor, many online games were created and kept being made. Former contestant, Erik Reichenbach, decided to create his own mobile game based off of Survivor.

Online Games

In 2013, Reichenbach launched a campaign on the crowd-funding website, Kickstarter, for his online mobile app based on the show. He called the game “Islands of Chaos.” The game featured players from all over the world in a series of challenges in order to be the last person standing, or the survivor.

The Survivor Parody

Not everyone is a fan of Survivor. The show has attracted more than its fair share of criticism, and even inspired a parody. The parody show, called Total Drama Island, aired on Cartoon Network in 2007 and didn’t hold back when it came to making fun of the show.

The Survivor Parody

The show focused on summer campers who went to stay at a five star resort which turned out to be a run-down summer camp on an island somewhere in Canada. The animated series poked fun at the reality show, and became a critical and commercial success, airing in 188 countries.

Auctions

Even with all of the merchandise connected with the show, its creators have still found even more ways of making the franchise even bigger. After Survivor: Africa, the decision was made to action off props and memorabilia from the filming of the show. Yet this method of raising money was not about creating more revenue for the show.

Auctions

Instead, the money raised through these auctions (held online so that fans all over the world can participate) has been donated to various charities. Not only has Survivor made a lot of money, but it has also used its popularity to do good.

A Charitable Cause

The most common recipient of the proceeds from the auctions held by Survivor has been the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS foundation. Thanks to the support of fans of the show, a lot of money has been raised for this charitable organization.

A Charitable Cause

Another charity which has benefitted from the auctions is The Serpentine Project, a charity which was founded by the show’s host, Jeff Probst. The organization helps children as they transition out of the foster care system and enter the adult world. Items auctioned off have included clothing from contestants, autographed items, the voting urn, flags, mats, and contestant torches.

Survivor Thrill Ride

Believe it or not, there has also been an amusement park ride based off of the show! While it was originally called Survivor: The Ride, that name didn’t prove to be too popular with the park’s guests and so it was renamed The Tiki Twirl.

Survivor Thrill Ride

The ride can be found at California’s Great America in Santa Clara, California. The ride has a rotating platform moving along a track. Themes from Survivor are evident throughout the ride and include drums and musical accents from the show playing in the background as riders are sprayed with water guns hidden in tribal masks.

Scandals Galore

Considering that it has been on the air for twenty years (if you count the earliest version of the show which aired in Sweden), it should be no surprise that the franchise has attracted quite a lot of controversy and scandal.

Scandals Galore

From wardrobe malfunctions to lawsuits, the show has received a lot of bad press. There have also been a lot of allegations that what happens on the reality TV show isn’t exactly, well, real. Many of those rumors turned out to be true, such as votes being rigged by the producers and body doubles being used on the show.

Wardrobe Malfunction

One of the craziest things to ever happen on the show caused a big scandal On Survivor: Gabon, contestant Marcus Lehman had a bit of a wardrobe malfunction. On the premiere episode of the show, an uncensored show of his private parts was aired on television.

Wardrobe Malfunction

Naturally, people went nuts. The scandal, while unintentional, was a pretty big mistake and the network was asked to apologize for the incident. While Lehman did not win the show, finishing in 10th place, he’s still doing pretty well for himself. The doctor is a graduate of Harvard University and was named Georgia’s hottest bachelor by Cosmopolitan magazine in 2006.

Demotion?

On a reunion episode of Survivor: China, contestant Denise Martin told the viewers a tragic tale of what had happened to her since being on the reality competition show. Martin, who worked in a school as a lunch lady, said that she had been demoted at work because of her role on the television series.

Demotion?

According to Martin, while she had previously been working as a lunch lady, her appearance on the show was so distracting to the students that the school demoted her to a less interactive position in the school, making her a member of the janitorial staff instead.

A Tragic Tale…That Turned Out Not To Be True

The producers of Survivor, other contestants, and audience, were sympathetic to Denise Martin and outraged by the entire situation. Why should she be demoted for appearing on a television show and competing to make a lot of money that would have supplemented her income as a lunch lady? Because of what happened, she was awarded $50,000 to compensate for her change in position.

A Tragic Tale…That Turned Out Not To Be True

Yet the school district Martin worked for said that Martin had actually agreed to take the janitorial position before appearing on the show, meaning that her sad tale was a tall tale. After the scandal broke out, Martin donated the $50,000 to charity.

A Lawsuit

But it isn’t just the contestants and producers of the show who have caused problems for the TV franchise. In 2010, producer Mark Burnett sued a user on one of the fan forums for the show for revealing spoilers of what would happen on the show.

A Lawsuit

Since the show doesn’t air live and goes through a lengthy editing process, it’s possible for people to leak what’s going to happen on the show to the public. While confidentiality agreements are in place to prevent this from happening, top secret information is released on rare occasions, as in the case of the 2010 incident.

A Big Mess

Jim Early, whose username on the fan forum is Missyae, was allegedly receiving information from Russell Hantz, a contestant on Survivor: Samoa and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains. While Hantz denied the allegations, Early said that Hantz revealed spoiler information to him through phone calls and emails. After receiving the exclusive information, Early posted it online.

A Big Mess

Hantz has continued to deny the claims but if they are found to be true, he could be liable for up to $5 million which is the amount stated in the contract for contestants on Survivor is they reveal the season’s results before it airs on television.

Castaway Outed During Tribal Council

In an emotional episode of 2017’s Survivor: Game Changers, one castaway outed another as transgender. During Tribal Council, contestant Jeff Varner gave an impassioned speech in which he revealed a huge secret: that fellow castaway Zeke Smith is transgender. Smith recalled to Hollywood Reporter, “I remember the smug smirk on his face and the gleam in his eye when he turned to me and snarled, ‘Why haven’t you told anyone that you’re transgender?’”

Castaway Outed During Tribal Council

The tribe was stunned by Varner’s cruel revelation and unanimously voted him off the island. Varner later apologized on social media, but the damage he caused Smith is irreversible.