30 Seasons of Survivor: An Oral History of the Reality Competition That Changed the Game
Fifteen years, 30 seasons, 460 castaways. One show lit the torch for the reality-TV revolution. On May 31, 2000, CBS premiered Survivor, an unscripted experiment (based on a Swedish series) that stranded 16 Americans on the remote island of Pulau Tiga near Borneo in the South China Sea. After splitting into two tribes, the players would spend the next 39 days voting one another off in a makeshift jungle courtroom known as Tribal Council until one went home with a million-dollar grand prize. On the eve of Season 30 (which premieres Wednesday, Feb. 25 at 8/7c), producers and the game’s most memorable players revealed the stories behind some of Survivor‘s iconic moments. The tribe has spoken.
Mark Burnett (executive producer): I’d been making a show called Eco-Challenge for several years on cable, and a British producer called Charlie Parsons had an idea for a show about a group of castaways on an island. I instantly loved the premise and could really see that it was part Swiss Family Robinson and part Lord of the Flies.
Kelly Kahl (senior executive vice president, CBS primetime): Mark’s the consummate salesman: “Imagine yourself on an island with 15 other people and no food, no water, no shelter.” He had a captivating pitch, and we thought it was really cool, something different and something we wanted to participate in.
Burnett: There were so many suggestions going around CBS about using a former sports star or a newsperson as a host. But I knew in my gut it had to be the kind of person the viewer would accept authentically as a guy who could hang out on that island.
Jeff Probst (host and executive producer): I was on the 405 Freeway listening to a local Los Angeles radio station, and I heard Mark Burnett describe the show. I pulled over, called my agent, and said, “I’ve got to get a meeting.” I felt instantly connected to the show from just his tiny description of taking a group of people, abandoning them, forcing them to work together, and then voting each other out. So we talked for almost two hours, but he didn’t seem impressed or interested at all.
Burnett: I narrowed it down from hundreds of audition tapes to two: Jeff Probst and [current Amazing Race host] Phil Keoghan. I had an instinct that Jeff was the right one for Survivor, but I believed Phil deserved to have a shot. I clearly narrowed it down to a good final two.
Kahl: We didn’t know what kind of contestants to look for [on the first season, Borneo]. On any reality show now, you want the wacky guy, the good-looking straitlaced guy, the crazy girl. But nobody knew exactly what the dance card should look like [then].
Susan Hawk (Borneo and All-Stars contestant): I was hauling scrap, driving a dump truck in Milwaukee County, and heard morning DJs chitchatting about this show. I was like, “I could do that!” They gave a web page for the application, which was, like, five pages and took me two days to fill out. You had to make a video, too. So I sent it off and forgot all about it. Then right around Christmas the phone rings, and it’s Survivor. I left for L.A. in March.
Richard Hatch (Borneo winner; All-Stars contestant): We were sequestered in Long Beach, California, for almost two weeks and went through all kinds of psychological, psychiatric, and medical exams just for them to get a feel about who we really are.
Hawk: They put us through the wringer. There were 30 people in an office at CBS that looked like [it was from] The Godfather: maroon carpet and curtains with dark wood. You sat in front of a fireplace and everyone circled around you.
Kahl: We would just lob crazy-ass questions out to these people. One of the guys was a Christian, so we asked him, “Would you have sex with a woman on the island?” There were just no boundaries for the questions you could ask because the premise was so crazy.
Hatch: I put my hand on the back of the chair and said, “Look, you know you’re going to pick me, but what you don’t know is I’m going to win, and I’m going to host next year’s show.” They thought I was the most arrogant prick in the whole world!
Probst: No one expected the most confident and cocky Richard would ever last very long. But he showed us what social politics were going to look like, because he was ahead of everybody in terms of realizing the need to gather certain people around him. And the annoying, fat, naked gay guy won the game!
Hatch: Living conditions were challenging because I was exhausted by the mental intensity of the game. Lack of food, being bitten by bugs, sleeping on the sand–it’s a lot harder than any viewer can really understand. I knew going in that I would have a better shot working with others than by myself, so I created an alliance. What I didn’t realize was that people would not recognize that this is a game. Viewers today are still challenged by the idea that ethics or integrity are somehow compromised.
Hawk: Conditions were rough. It wasn’t an environment where real food grew much. The nuts that came out of the trees were rotted in the middle. You could hardly see a damn fish. It was hard to not let on how bad you felt.
Hatch: I watched Sue go off the rails a number of times, and her final Tribal Council speech was one of the many fractures I observed.
In the final Tribal Council, Hawk directed an epic rant at Hatch and runner-up Kelly Wiglesworth (who had betrayed Hawk), comparing them to snakes and rats.
Hawk: On Day 37, I got voted out. I was starving, and it was an emotional roller coaster. But they made the greatest coffee on the island, so I was smoking cigarettes and sucking down this coffee. I was getting f—ing jacked. The crew gave me a stack of paper and a pen, so I went off by myself and wrote and rewrote. Right before we got to Tribal Council, I told them, “When you get your cameras rolling, you’d better make sure you’ve got those g–damn things loaded up, because I ain’t f—ing stopping.”
John Cochran (South Pacific contestant; Caramoan winner): That speech was just incredible. It was such a beautiful extended metaphor coming from an unlikely source, which made it especially stinging. She reduced the game to a very simple analogy: You’re gonna be a snake or you’re gonna be a rat, and the jury’s more likely to reward a snake in the end.
Probst: It was riveting. She was so honest about being hurt.
Hawk: I was so glad I got that off my chest. I didn’t give a flying s–t if they showed it on TV or not. But Mark Burnett and a producer were in a sound booth, and they turned around and hugged each other.
Survivor’s ratings exploded over the first season, and the August 23 finale pulled in 51.7 million viewers, setting the record for the largest summer audience in TV history.
Kahl: Once it was apparent that this was a hit, it became: How quickly can we get another one going, and could it be ready by the Super Bowl? We had a phenomenon on our hands, and these are things that come along once every 10 or 15 years, if you’re lucky.
Probst: We saw it as an opportunity to do it again and better. There wasn’t any pressure; it was just all bigger. Our crew went from 85 in Season 1 to 220.
Survivor: The Australian Outback premiered January 28, 2001, after Super Bowl XXXV, with 45.4 million viewers. It introduced a new batch of faces, including current Fox & Friends host Elisabeth Hasselbeck (née Filarski), alpha male Colby Donaldson, and actress Jerri Manthey, who was portrayed as duplicitous and a troublemaker.
Jerri Manthey (The Australian Outback, All-Stars, and Heroes vs. Villains contestant): It was earthshaking realizing my life was going to change. I felt like a hero, but the [editing] did not portray my true experience. I was hated by [the audience]. I had people stopping me on the street and in traffic rolling their windows down to scream at me. My face was on every tabloid. I got blamed for breaking up Jeff Probst’s marriage. It was devastating. It was a whirlwind of insanity, and it turned me into a villain.
Jonny “Fairplay” Dalton (Pearl Islands and Micronesia contestant): Everyone who was considered a bad guy, like Jerri, complained they got a bad edit. They were a bunch of losers. I wanted to be the biggest bad guy in the history of reality television. I’m evil. Watching the show [before I was on], I used to cry when it got to the Loved Ones Challenge [when relatives and friends of the contestants joined for one competition], and I had to use this to my advantage. So I came up with the dead grandma lie in Pearl Islands.
Probst: We were doing this cool Loved Ones Challenge and his buddy comes out. They’re whispering, and Fairplay turned around and said, “My grandma died.” I bought it 100 percent. I felt like such a fool later because, within five hours, we were calling his home to send some flowers and the grandma answers. No one at that point had ever lied like that.
Fairplay: The week Saddam Hussein was captured, there was a newspaper headline: “The Most Hated Man in America,” and there was a picture of me. Saddam was on Page 2. I’m the greatest villain; there’s no comparison.
Probst: When you talk about player impact on the show, there’s Richard Hatch, there’s Jonny Fairplay, and there’s Russell Hantz. Russell was a pretty evil person.
“Boston” Rob Mariano (Marquesas, All-Stars, and Heroes vs. Villains contestant; Redemption Island winner): One of the first nights of Heroes vs. Villains, Russell was telling stories about being in an attic with a dog during Hurricane Katrina. And he was making up this story. It was completely fabricated!
Manthey: Russell is probably one of the most despicable human beings I’ve ever met.
Sandra Diaz-Twine (Pearl Islands and Heroes vs. Villains winner): I saw Russell for the first time, in the airport, and he was carrying a Bible. No lie.
Russell Hantz (Samoa, Heroes vs. Villains, and Redemption Island contestant): I made a cast of superstars look like they were nobodies. I dominated them. I controlled the way they felt. I wasn’t just the extreme villain; I was the one viewers loved to hate.
Probst: The minute Russell found a hidden immunity idol without a clue, everyone thought, “Why did no one ever do this before?” It seemed so simple! He was like the roadrunner; we could barely keep up with him.
Hantz: The cameramen know where it is, so you have to be smarter than them. I would look in one spot for hours, and I know they can’t tape me constantly doing nothing. When they stopped taping me, I knew it wasn’t in that vicinity, so I moved to the next one. People try to say it was fixed, but it wasn’t.
Parvati Shallow (Cook Islands and Heroes vs. Villains contestant; Micronesia winner): He’s brilliant at Survivor because he’s pretty charismatic and makes people feel like he genuinely cares about them–which, as we all know, is not the case. People would fall under his spell.
Cochran: Russell’s existence, as reluctant as I am to acknowledge it, is somewhat responsible for giving the show a much-needed energy boost in the later years.
In order to keep the show fresh, producers have frequently tinkered with the format, including dividing tribes by age, gender, physical attributes, and blood relation. Some tweaks have been better received than others.
Probst: I understand that the 2006 Cook Islands season was controversial and upset some people because we divided it based on ethnicity: a tribe of white people, black people, Hispanic, and Asian.
Yul Kwon (Cook Islands winner): When I went to the final round of interviews, I noticed a lot of diversity and thought it was great–we’re finally getting a lot of racial balance. Producers didn’t tell us [about the tribes] until we were on the island the night before the game started. I was seriously thinking about quitting because it was such a bad idea. But I figured if I quit, it’s still going to go on, and other people might represent the Asian community in a way that isn’t positive. I wanted to have a voice.
Shallow: I didn’t think it was legal. They mixed us together quickly, to the point where race didn’t matter.
Probst: The Outcasts twist [on Pearl Islands, which allowed previously eliminated castaways to return and compete in a challenge] was a bad call. It was unfair. People came back into the game who had been eating and sleeping, and that was bulls–t. We were very uncomfortable with the Medallion of Power [from Nicaragua, which gave one tribe an advantage at challenges]. But I will fully own Redemption Island. You get a second chance, but you have to live alone, compete in challenges, and you get one shot to get back into a tribe that already voted you out. So your chances of winning are slim to none.
Mariano: At first, it was an awesome loophole to get back into the game. But as the season went along, it became the biggest thorn in my side because it added another layer of strategy you had to think about when voting people out. But it worked for me to win that season.
Burnett: The contestant who has played the game best and embodies Survivor most is Boston Rob. He combines athleticism and street smarts with cerebral power and charisma.
Probst: You have to mention Sandra Diaz-Twine. Anybody who can win the game two times, you cannot critique, period. She just hops along, says something lippy, and the next thing you know, she’s got the million. That’s a strategy.
Diaz-Twine: I’m the queen. So many fans consider my game play under the radar, but I’m the loudest person there! When I’m coming after you, I’m going to stab you in your neck, not in your back. At the end of the day, I didn’t give a damn who went home, as long as it wasn’t me.
Probst: Survivor is a microcosm of people from different walks of life. We wanted to find a theme that would capture 30 seasons, and we’re doing it this year with Worlds Apart: white collar vs. blue collar vs. no collar. I think it will go down as one of the best seasons.
Kahl: A few years ago, I would have said we were hitting a wall and maybe the special feeling of the show was gone. I’m shocked at the resilience of Survivor. By its nature and format, it’s utterly unpredictable and never gets boring.
Burnett: In 15 years, there have been changes in economics, changes in politics, wars have started, and wars have ended. But Survivor endures.
Survivor: Worlds Apart, Season premiere, Wednesday, Feb. 25, 8/7c, CBS