Survivor has thrilled audiences since its sensational first season in 2000, and it remains one of the best reality shows on TV. But how does a reality show of this sort keep running like a well-oiled machine? What goes on behind the scenes of Survivor? Turns out, there are many things you never knew about Survivor, including the elaborate challenge-testing process you don’t get to see on TV.

Survivor’s producers are invested in making sure the game is engaging for the audience. Behind-the-scenes planning begins months before shooting in order to create compelling drama and keep the audience coming back week after week, season after season. And of course, a reality show can’t go on this long without a few scandals here and there.


A ‘Dream Team’ Tests Out Challenges Before The Contestants

The challenges provide some of the most exciting moments on Survivor, and a lot of work goes into making them both fair to contestants and fun to watch. A designated “Dream Team” tests out every challenge beforehand, letting producers know if they should tweak a certain portion, eliminate a difficult task or make it more challenging.

This Dream Team consists of college-aged students who are paid to play in some of the most fun competitions on television. This team essentially gets a taste of the Survivor experience without all the starvation and paranoia. Not bad for a summer vacation.

Sound like a fantasy job to you? Turns out the position is rather elusive. Some former team members knew someone in production, while others caught challenge producer John Kirhoffer’s eye with a snazzy cover letter.

Jeff Probst Almost Quit In 2009

Photo:  Survivor/CBS

Feeling burned out by Survivor, Probst quit the show after hitting a low point during Season 17, Gabon, in 2008. He went to CBS president Les Moonves to give his resignation, saying he was tired of being known as “a white guy with dark hair who was just a game show host.” Probst explains, “That in terms of my own self-image was the thing that could gut me. It was like a kidney punch.”

Moonves told him to take a few months off to reenergize, and Probst changed his mind. The rest is history, as Probst is more involved now than ever.

Contestants Have Smuggled Tools Into The Game

Photo:  Survivor/CBS

You’re not allowed to bring in outside tools to help you win Survivor, but some contestants have tried. One of the most infamous instances occurred when Season 1 winner Richard Hatch returned for Survivor: All-Stars. Fellow contestant Kathy Vavrick-O’Brien alleges Hatch actually smuggled matches up his butt to help start fires.

Before returning for Survivor: Cambodia – Second Chance, Peih-Gee Law designed a pair of fish hook earrings, and also sewed flint onto her cardigan, which she fully admits. Anything for an advantage!

Some Contestants Are Recruited

Photo:  Survivor/CBS

While Survivor encourages viewers to apply every year, not all contestants who make it onto the show send in a tape. Some of the show’s castaways are actually recruited by casting producers, usually in Los Angeles or New York.

This has led to some consternation among diehard Survivor fans, who feel they deserve a spot on the show over model-actors who may not even watch the series. But many recruits have picked up on the game’s intricacies quickly. In fact, recruits Aras Baskauskas, Yul Kwon, and Earl Cole all went on to win their respective seasons.

Even The First Boot Gets Paid

Photo: Survivor/CBS

Since the very first season, Survivor has awarded the winner $1 million and the runner-up $100,000. While we never hear about payment for any of the unlucky contestants who have their torch snuffed, rest assured that each and every one of them gets a paycheck for appearing on Survivor.

Yep, even the first person eliminated after just three days on the island gets a chunk of change for appearing on national TV. While Survivor producers have not commented on the pay scale since 2005, one report after Season 11 revealed that the first boot got $2,500. From there, the pay gradually increases, with contestants who make the merge/jury portion earning at least five figures.

Every Contestant Gets A Designated Camera Operator

Each of the 16-20 Survivor contestants gets their own camera operator who captures their every move. This way, editors are guaranteed to get everything they need on camera, especially important moments like heavy strategy sessions and Hidden Immunity Idol finds.

The only camera break contestants get is when they have to relieve themselves. Of course, it’s possible that some clever contestant could use this lack of camera presence to sneak off and find an Idol without being detected, but again, this is strictly forbidden.

Tribal Council Votes Are Read In A Specific Order To Create Suspense

Every vote tally at Tribal Council is presented in a way to maximize the hold-your-breath suspense for both contestants and viewers. Take the all-time classic Survivor: Cagayan merge vote, for example. The votes alternate between Jefra Bland and Sarah Lacina until each has five – and there’s one vote left. Then Probst reveals the final vote for Sarah, cast by the infamous “Chaos” Kass McQuillen in a stunning move, and the contestants have a huge reaction. This would be much less dramatic if the votes weren’t read in a specific order. That’s why Probst and company arrange the votes before the big reveal.

Early Vote-Outs Go On A Trip

While some Survivor obsessives desperately want to know the boot order ahead of time, the show’s producers do their best to curb leaks by sending early vote-outs on a vacation while the rest of the season plays out.

After all, if you knew someone on the next season of Survivor, it would be fairly obvious they didn’t make it far if they flew home a week after the season began. While jury members are sent to “Ponderosa” for the rest of filming, those that don’t make the jury get a free vacation to an exotic location. In essence, they still get the adventure of a lifetime, just without the starvation and pesky bugs.

Tribal Councils Are Hours Long

Photo: Survivor/CBS

Tribal Councils are already pretty in-depth in the 10-15 minutes we see on television, but that’s nothing compared to what contestants actually endure. Jeff Probst subjects castaways to hours of questioning at Tribal Council to ensure producers have the footage they need.

Many contestants have reported that Tribal Councils last way longer than what we see on TV, though reporter Andy Dehnart did note upon observing one in person: “Give thanks that it’s edited, since much of the conversation is also kind of boring.”

There Are Up To 50 Boats In The Water During Challenges

The Survivorchallenges are so riveting because of the show’s experienced camera crew. To make sure they don’t miss a moment, producers utilize up to 50 boats filled with crew members for water-based challenges.

As host Jeff Probst explains, the key to filming with so many boats in the water is having “excellent boat captains.” He notes that these captains need to be keenly aware of where to go, how fast to go, and how to operate the boat smoothly.

In All-Star Seasons, There Are Many Pre-Game Alliances

In the handful of seasons featuring returning players, the gameplay essentially starts before they step foot on the beach. Considering many contestants know each other already –  either from playing together or meeting each other at charity events – a few pre-game alliances have formed before the start of all-star seasons.

Before Survivor: Cambodia – Second Chance, Jeff Varner revealed he had a pre-game alliance with about half the cast, formed over a series of 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.

Contestants Are Transported By Vehicle To Tribal Council

Photo: Survivor/CBS

While Survivor gives the impression that tribes hike all the way to Tribal Council, this isn’t the case. Although contestants are shown leaving camp with torches as the sun sets, they’re actually thrown into blacked-out vehicles and transported to the Tribal Council set.

The same goes for most of the land-based challenges, while boats are usually used for water challenges. Survivor is already draining enough for the castaways, so producers likely don’t want them to be mentally and physically exhausted before challenges and Tribal Councils.

Later Vote-Outs Go To ‘Ponderosa’

Those who make it to the jury portion of the season get to vote for the season’s winner. They stay at a resort called “Ponderosa.” Here, they eat as much food as they want, watch DVDs, read, and commiserate with fellow jury members.

However, they are not allowed to access the internet, since they might be tempted to research contestants still in the game, influencing their final vote. It also prevents contestants from posting Survivor spoilers in alcohol-induced fits of rage.

Clothing Must Be Pre-Approved

Photo: Survivor/CBS

Ever notice that contestants often wear the same color shirt as their tribe color? That’s no coincidence. Clothing must be pre-approved by producers, which is why you rarely see garments with logos on them – unless it’s a signature part of their identity, such as Boston Rob Mariano’s Red Sox hat.

Producers often pick out a specific color for a contestant to wear, so if you’re in an orange tribe, you’ll likely be seen on the show in orange or color-wheel-adjacent hues like red or yellow. This is presumably done to help viewers identify which contestants are in which tribe – while also color-coordinating nicely with tribal flags.

Jeff Probst Isn’t Just The Show’s Host

Photo: Survivor/CBS

Jeff Probst may have started simply as the host of Survivor, but he has since taken on additional responsibilities. He’s now an executive producer and showrunner, making sure everything goes off without a hitch. Around the time of Survivor: Nicaragua (Season 21) in 2010, Probst assumed a larger role in the show-making process. Meanwhile, original executive producer Mark Burnett has taken a backseat to focus on other reality shows like The Voice.

The Crew Has Its Own Camp

While the island may look expansive compared to the small amount of people living on it, there’s more to it than what you see on TV. The production crew has its own base camp on the island, where staff can communicate with each other and take a break with some bottled water.

Contestants are forbidden from entering production camp, considering it’s filled with food and drinks, but that hasn’t stopped a few from breaking in in the past. Survivor: Micronesia contestant Kathy Sleckman revealed in a Reddit AMA that fellow castaways Alexis Jones, Erik Reichenbach, and James Clement “got busted breaking into production camp. James told me in New York that even while I was still there, they had stole Gatorades and peanut butter and hid it in the med box.”

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