If you’re anything like me, you watched and still remember the first-ever season of Survivor from – believe it or not – 20 years ago! Survivor has been captivating viewers ever since it first debuted in 2000. The show has been taking us on a rollercoaster ride packed with insane survival challenges, love stories, heartbreaks, and surprising controversies. The contestants and host Jeff Probst have managed to keep our unwavering attention and give us some real popcorn-eating entertainment.
As you know, “reality TV” has its share of real and not-so-real aspects. Survivor is indeed filmed on an actual island, but there are lots of behind-the-scenes facts that fans of the show would love to know. Which is why we’re here! From legal issues to medical emergencies to contestants smuggling in items, these are all the surprising facts about one of the first (and best) reality competition shows in TV history.
‘The Dream Team’ is a group of young college students who score an internship by spending the summer testing out upcoming Survivor challenges. Talk about a dream internship! The purpose is to perfect the challenges and tweak any problems that may come up when the actual contestants perform them. Oh, and the best part: the interns get paid!
There are multiple stages of filming a challenge. First, the interns do dry runs of the challenges to block out the action for the cameras. Then they run a dress rehearsal, and producers run through the footage afterward to make decisions. Lastly, the interns run the challenge themselves. The internships take place on islands like Fiji, to give you an idea. The interns also help out around the set with prop making and production preparation.
It’s easy to believe that contestants immediately board a plane and head home after being voted off at tribal council. But, nope. The show does its best to avoid any leaks, and they do so by sending the early vote-outs on a trip while the rest of the season unfolds. While jury members are sent to “Ponderosa” for the rest of the shoot, the vote-outs are sent to an exotic location that is kept secret every year.
I guess there’s a silver lining to being voted off the island early on in the game! While some Survivor fans desperately want to know who gets booted ahead of time, the show’s producers make it so that no leaks are made.
As you know, those who make it to the jury portion get to vote for the season’s winner. And they stay at a resort called “Ponderosa.” It’s a place where they get to eat as much food as they want, watch movies, read, and chat with fellow jury members. But there’s one condition: they’re not allowed to access the internet. Why?
Because they might be tempted to research those contestants who are still in the game, which would end up influencing their final vote. It also prevents them from posting spoilers in any possible (and likely) alcohol-induced fits of rage. Hey, getting pampered all day and night, spending time with those voted off, and coming up with strategies on who they’re going to vote for doesn’t sound too shabby.
It’s no coincidence that contestants often wear the same color shirts as their tribe color. On Survivor, clothing must be pre-approved by the show’s producers, which is why you won’t see clothes with logos on them – unless it’s the main aspect of their identity (like Boston Rob Mariano’s Red Sox hat).
Producers usually pick out a specific color for a contestant to wear. If they’re in an orange tribe, they’ll be seen wearing orange or similar colors like red or yellow. This is done to help viewers identify which contestants are in which tribe. Before the show, contestants are also instructed to bring one or two outfits with them on the island with them. Producers inspect their wardrobes to make sure it fits their ‘character.’
The fact that it looks as though the survivors are all alone out there proves how well the producers do their job. The truth is the contestants are far from being isolated. A series as intense as Survivor means that there has to be a large team to ensure every camera angle, lighting, sound, and catering service, is incorporated into every episode as seamlessly as possible.
These crews often work for hours on end over the 39 days required to film a 13-episode season. And that crew follows the contestants’ every move. And for the most part, they do their best to act invisible and blend into the surroundings.
Besides the camera operators, there are departments for art, challenges, music, sound, lighting, catering, and everything you can think of that goes into the production of a TV show. This also means that the camera crew is there 24/7, during rain storms, intense heat, and whatever Mother Nature brings to the table (or, rather, the island).
Since the crew is so big, they get to have their own base camp on the island. The crew gets their own comfortable accommodation, all the food and drinks they want, and spots where they can communicate with each other about the show. During Season 16, some contestants managed to break into the production camp and stole Gatorades and peanut butter. After that incident, contestants are more closely monitored, and geographical boundaries have become stricter.
Sure, we know Survivor from the American version that came onto our screens back in 2000 and had been steadily gracing our TV sets every year since the show began, but the concept for Survivor was actually presented almost a decade before that. Charlie Parsons was the one who came up with the idea in the U.K. back in 1994.
The first show based on that idea came to the TV screen in 1997. The show was titled Expedition Robinson and followed the same kind of format: contestants were sent into survival situations, and everyone voted someone out week after week, until a final winner was named. The show is still on the air, by the way.
In 20 years, there have been only two people who played “perfect games.” Those two players: John Cochran in season 26 and JT Thomas in season 18. So, what makes a perfect game? Not only did these two wins by means of a unanimous vote, but they also never had even one single vote against them at a tribal council – throughout the entire game!
That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment and an amazing feat to pull off in such a competitive game like Survivor. It’s a game where alliances are always changing, and people are constantly going behind one another’s back or even throwing votes to cause chaos. Regardless, no votes flew their way on their seasons.
You might think that the contestants are secretly handed an extra bag of rice or given some cheeseburgers when the cameras stop rolling, but sadly, this isn’t the case. While the crew themselves can indulge in local delicacies while filming is done for the day or when they’re on a break, contestants have to stick it out and eat plain white rice or swim or hunt for their food.
The struggle is real, folks. The hunger, the accompanying dehydration, the often-humid conditions, and the physical challenges they have to perform all come together to make the contestants a group of very hungry people. There have even been contestants who were medically evacuated from the game. Caleb Reynolds, for instance, was evacuated due to heat exhaustion.
While Survivor originated in America, a version of the show airs in a total of 55 different countries and regions around the world From Spain to Poland, Pakistan to Mexico, and the Netherlands to Australia, Survivor, is played in lots of countries.
Not only are there tons of countries where Survivor is played, but there are also tons of hours that editors need to go through every single episode. For every 44-minute episode, the editors trim between 300 to 500 hours of footage. That’s a lot of time! There are surely lots of exciting moments throughout the filming of the show, but the crew has to squeeze everything into a mere 44 minutes.
Of course, on our screens, the tribal council takes about 10 minutes, more or less. But, in reality, it takes hours to get through. The contestants can sit there for up to three hours, answering Jeff’s questions. And the producers then have to sift through all the footage to reveal only the best “quote-worthy” lines to the viewers at home.
Those three hours are also not nearly as intense as the few minutes we get to see at home. It’s called “dramatic effect” for a reason. Reporter Andy Dehnart noted that he observed one in person: “Give thanks that it’s edited since much of the conversation is also kind of boring.”
We know that the winner takes home the million-dollar prize, and also that the runner-up leaves with $100,000 and third place winner goes home with $85,000. Not too bad, right? But what you probably didn’t know is that it trickles down even further – all the way down to the very first person to get voted off. First of all, every player gets $10,000 just for showing up at the live reunion.
That first person who got eliminated after just three days on the island? Yes, he or she gets a chunk of change. Survivor producers haven’t stated exactly how much, but one report after Season 11 revealed that the first one to get voted off got $2,500. From there, the pay steadily increases, with contestants on the jury portion earning five figures.
When you watch a Survivor challenge on TV, it looks like there is no camera crew in sight, and only the players and Jeff are present, right? I think you know by now that that’s clearly not the case. There are actually close to 50 boats in the water during those challenges, as well as the hidden camera crew in the bushes on shore!
It’s pretty amazing when you realize that even with all those people and boats, we don’t see ANY of them during the challenges. It goes to show just how great they are at their job. But when you stop to think that they’re now in their 41st season, it kind of makes sense that they handle it like pros.
You know that age-old question: if you were stranded on an island, what would be the one item you would take with you? Well, contestants on Survivor are actually given a few ‘essentials’ while roughing it out on the island. What are these so-called essentials? They’re given items like birth control, feminine hygiene products, vital medication, sunscreen, and insect repellent.
And yes, birth control. Why? Because producers don’t want any survivor babies showing up, as we all know that there can be some funny business going on when people are stranded on an island for a month. Producers also don’t want any outbreaks of infections or severe skin damage. But the bad part is that contestants aren’t allowed toothbrushes, combs, or razors. I can only imagine the smells…
After reading that, you won’t be surprised to learn that contestants have tried to smuggle items onto the show. While contestants aren’t allowed to bring outside tools, some attempted to do so. One contestant, Peih-Gee Law, designed a pair of fish hook earrings for her to use for fishing. She even sewed flint into her cardigan to be able to make fires.
Remember Season 1 winner Richard Hatch? When he returned for Survivor: All-Stars, his fellow contestant Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien claimed that Hatch smuggled matches up his rear end! The producers do their best to inspect all of their items and clothing before the game begins, but even the most experienced producers get out-witted.
By now, Jeff Probst is pretty much the iconic reality TV show that is synonymous with Survivor. I mean, he comes with the package. But way back in the day, he almost didn’t get the gig. Probst said in a 2013 interview that he was forced to face off with another now-popular reality show host for the job: Phil Keoghan.
Keoghan obviously didn’t get the gig, but he did go on to snag a sweet job as host of The Amazing Race, a job he still has to this day. I can imagine them swapping spots to guest host each other’s show to give fans a fun surprise. But for the time being, it hasn’t happened. And even though Probst got the job, there came a time when he didn’t want it anymore…
Some may think that Jeff Probst has the best job in the world, and when you think about it, he kind of does. But, if you’re thinking he just shows up to announce a challenge or run the tribal council and then spends the rest of his time lounging on a beach chair with “The Host” written on it, you would be mistaken.
The man is more than just the host – he’s actually an executive producer and a showrunner, meaning he does a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure the show goes smoothly. After all, who knows the show better than Jeff himself? Probably no one. And it all came to be after threatening to leave the show…
Speaking of the infamous host of Survivor, Jeff Probst almost left the show for good back in 2008. Jeff had actually resigned from Survivor, permanently. More than a decade later, he has openly spoken about that time period. He said how he felt unfulfilled being a host since after being on the show for 17 seasons.
That’s a lot of seasons! But he admitted that after a few months, he changed his mind. It turns out that it was a turning point in Jeff’s career on the show. It was after that near-loss that he became the executive producer and got much more involved. You can even say that Jeff is the backbone of the show.
Have you wondered why the votes always tend to arrive at a suspenseful tie at tribal council? Well, those votes aren’t announced randomly. After the contestants cast their votes, Jeff sits down with the producers to work together and arrange the votes in the most dramatic order possible. It makes it much more eventful, leaving us on the edge of our seats until the very last second.
You can take the All-time classic Survivor: Cagayan merge vote as an example. The votes alternated between Jefra Bland and Sarah Lacina until each one had five – and there’s only one vote left. Then Probst announced the final vote for Sarah, cast by “Chaos” Kass McQuillen and the contestants reacted. It would be much less dramatic if the votes were read at random.
Survivor gets thousands of applications every year, but producers need specific people to fit into the mold of the team. As you noticed, the show’s contestants are almost always diverse and different from one another. And there’s a method to that madness of picking which players will make the teams. The producers look at all kinds of characteristics – from their personality to their specific game strategy.
They need to create a good mix in order to blend different personalities together. But even when the individuals are selected, they still have to go through a long process to make the final cut. The show’s castaways are usually recruited in Los Angeles or New York.
On our screens, challenges take about ten minutes. However, the preparation for the challenge actually takes hours. Each person is taken through the challenge by a crew member, where they are shown each component of the task and can ask questions. This means that the teams are able to strategize beforehand. Also, each team member has to meet with the medical team to make sure they’re physically able to compete.
The medical staff is always nearby. Whenever there is an emergency, the medical staff is there within seconds. A team present at all times in case a contestant collapses from heat exhaustion or dehydration. The show takes safety and health very seriously, which is why the medical staff is present 24 hours a day.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but Survivor contestants don’t do all of their own stunts. While they definitely go through every challenge to the fullest extent, body doubles are sometimes used, simply for convenience. For example, body doubles are used when they need aerial shots during challenges – to get a shot in advance that doesn’t have all those camera crew boats in them.
They also use body doubles to recreate parts of the challenge if the crew didn’t manage to get a specific shot. Oh, and who are these doubles? The Dream Team, of course! And body doubles aren’t the only things that Survivor’s contestants get while shooting the episodes.
Each contestant has his or her own personal camera operator. That way, producers can ensure that their every move is captured. It guarantees that absolutely everything is caught on camera, including such a moment like an individual player sneaking off to look for a hidden immunity idol or some other important strategy tactic. The only time a contestant doesn’t have a camera on them is when they need to relieve themselves.
Here’s another thing: the contestants are transported to and from the challenges and tribal council in blacked-out vehicles. They do it to keep the location of the challenges a secret. Otherwise, they can see another team’s camp, tribal council location, or a location they’re competing in.
With 41 seasons so far and no sign of it stopping, you might be wondering how does a show possibly last that long? It takes more than just loyal watchers to keep a show on the air. Survivor also has a few tricks up its sleeve to stay financially stable. One of their strategies is shooting two seasons back-to-back in the same location. It’s a huge reason why they maintained longevity and affordability.
Speaking of locations, in season 37, castaways were forced to evacuate twice due to cyclones in Fiji. The entire cast and crew have endured severe weather conditions and other complications while shooting the series. Fiji proved to be one of the toughest locations to shoot in. In 2018, cyclones hit the South Pacific archipelago, causing them to evacuate twice.
When it comes to all-star seasons that feature returning players, the game pretty much starts before they even set foot on the island. Since a lot of the contestants have already played together before and might have relationships in the outside world, there have been a few pre-game alliances formed before filming even started.
This is likely why the gameplay on these all-star seasons seems a lot more aggressive than seasons where no one knows each other at all. And that’s because they have relationships outside of the show. In Cambodia – Second Chance, Jeff Varner revealed to everyone that he had a pre-game alliance with about half the cast. They were all formed over phone calls and meetings. The gameplay is decidedly more aggressive on these seasons and often feels more personal since many of the contestants either know each other or are friends in real life.
Not only that, but Survivor also acts as a dating game. Any true fan remembers the season where Amber and Boston Rob got together. Not only win the million-dollar prize but to get engaged in the live finale. They’re now married with four daughters. Rob went onto Survivor a second time to win the million dollars himself.
Random fact: Jeff Probst once said that he “didn’t see a spot on the jury” for quitters. If there’s one thing that every Survivor contestant should know about Jeff, it’s that he doesn’t tolerate quitters. In a 2015 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Jeff said he stands by his belief that those who give up stand virtually no chance at ever earning a spot on the jury.
Alec Merlino was almost sued for $5 million for posting an Instagram photo with fellow contestant Kara Kay before season 37 began airing. Survivor may look like fun, but like any other reality game show, there are specific rules to follow. Weeks before Season 37 aired in 2018, Alec Merlino was nearly hit in the face with a $5 million lawsuit after sharing a now-deleted Instagram photo of him and co-contestant/partner Kara Kay.
Random fact: the show got its “special powers” idol idea from Tyler Perry. Tyler Perry is one of many celebrities who pitched ideas to producers of Survivor (Jimmy Fallon is another one). The “special powers” idol idea that Perry suggested involved allowing competitors to use this “ability” after the final votes were read.
While it may look like the contestants are free to roam the island as much as they desire, they’re actually limited to certain areas only. All other areas of the island are strictly off-limits to them and forbidden to explore. It’s because there could be a challenge that they’re setting up nearby.
Also, producers aren’t allowed to talk to the contestants. During all those times when we see a contestant doing a confessional towards the camera, they’re actually talking to a crew member. But every once in a while, one of the producers will pull a contestant aside for an interview to get their input on a bubbling situation. But, the crew isn’t allowed to talk back and must stay dead silent throughout the contestants’ ranting and telling them all their secrets.
During a Survivor Panel for Entertainment Weekly, Probst revealed his favorite winner. His choice? Season 26’s John Cochran. Probst also shared his picks for the contestants that he believes played their best games. His choices? Parvati Shallow and Rob Mariano. During a Reddit AMA, he also revealed his least favorite Survivor twist ever – and that honor goes to the Medallion of Power.
“I never liked it. Didn’t speak up loudly enough. We do make mistakes – we know that. But I hope you guys feel that generally, we make good decisions. Here’s the truth, and any show creator will tell you this: you don’t know what will work until you try it,” Jeff said. His pick for the best twist, though, was the hidden immunity idol, which started in season 11.
The show has included different age groups over time. The youngest contestant was Will Wahl, 18, when he participated in the 33rd season of Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X. Then, there was also the oldest contestant to participate: Rudy Boesch. The former Navy Seal starred on the 1st and 8th season of the show at the age of 72 and 75. We can go ahead and call Boesch a ‘Survivor’ Grandpa.
The youngest person to ever win was Jud Fabio Birza. He won Survivor: Nicaragua at age 21. On the other hand, 57-year old Bob Crowley became the oldest person to win the show. This proves that young or old(er), anyone can be the last man/woman standing on Survivor – what they call the ‘Sole Survivor.’