For 33 seasons fans have been watching Jeff Probst help bring Survivor to our Fall TV line up. Probst has won several awards for being an Outstanding Host at the Emmys and the series is often credited with being the first ever highly rated and profitable reality show.
But with every great show, once you pull the curtains back, there are tons of things to discover. Some you’re really going to love to read and are definitely going to heighten your enjoyment of one of your favorite shows. Others may reveal some secrets from behind the scenes that impact the mystery, if only just a little bit.
Below we’re going to cover some of the lesser known facts of the show, as well as interviews with former survivors, people who worked on the show, and of course Probst himself.
All in all, it’s a complete picture of every element of the show that helps make it work. How do their challenges work? How do these people get cast? How can I get cast? All those questions are answered below, along with some of the better tidbits that you may have missed, like which Survivor soiled himself during a challenge and needed to wear those shorts the rest of his time, the scariest moment of Probst’s hosting experience, and even the time a survivor found something they shouldn’t have.
Don’t love Survivor? You’ll still enjoy this comprehensive look at why this show has run for over 480 episodes and has no plan of slowing down anytime soon.
20. Everything You Want To Know About Tribal Council
How do you do a list on Survivor and not spend some time dissecting the most important part of the show? While it’s a clean 10-15 minutes at home, the real-life tribal council takes hours according to former contestants. Once the votes are cast, Jeff will then meet with producers to make sure the votes are told in the most dramatic way that they can be (including making sure any votes shown to the camera are first to appear).
Tribal council is also heavily edited and altered in ways that you might not expect. This includes producers shutting off cameras and then taking each contestant aside and asking them potential outcomes that may come from their votes. As if it wasn’t a pressure filled decision already!
19. The Most Embarrassing Thing Filmed (But Not Aired!)
When a cameraman from Survivor sat down for an AMA (an informal interview) with Reddit, naturally one of the questions asked was about the craziest thing they ever caught on camera, but couldn’t show.
The cameraman responded, “A contestant having sh-t themself after a challenge. … a quick dip in the ocean is all the freshening up they got. Had to wear the same shit stained salt water rinsed shorts for another couple of weeks as well!!”
For the contestant’s dignity, the name was not revealed but fans quickly pointed out to Chet (from Survivor: Micronesia) as being the most likely candidate. Judging from the above photo, are you really going to argue?
18. They All Get Paid
Wait, what? I thought this was just a game for $1 million and that was it! It turns out that there is a specific cash settlement depending on where you finish in the game.
Winner: $1,000,000, Runner-up: $100,000, 3rd: $85,000, 4th: $70,000, 5th: $55,000, 6th: $45,000, 7th: $35,000, 8th: $27,500, 9th: $20,000, 10th: $15,000, 11th: $10,000, 12th: $7,500, 13th: $5,500, 14th: $4,500, 15th: $3,500, 16th: $2,500
If it is a bigger season (20 or 18 castaways) the monetary sum would be adjusted. If there is a tie between the 2nd and 3rd player, they split the $185,000. As well as this, contestants earn $10,000 for their appearance at the live finale/reunion show.
17. How Many People Get Recruited To Play
Do you have dreams of appearing on Survivor? It may be a bigger pipe dream than you realize. Quite often the cast members are recruited onto the show. In fact, for Survivor: Fiji there was only one cast member who was not ‘recruited’ to appear.
Often you’ll see contestants on Survivor that originally auditioned for The Amazing Race, such as Jaclyn and Jon from Season 29 and Parvarti Shallows. Clarence, another popular player, applied for Big Brother.
16. Who Jeff Probst Didn’t Want On The Show
Following up on the theme of players that were recruited on the show, as opposed to ones who auditioned, Caleb Reynolds was an easy addition. He’s big and strong, he’s an Army veteran which the show tends to like and he definitely had an outgoing personality. But Jeff Probst was definitely not a huge fan of Caleb at first, saying in an interview “I was not so sure about Caleb. In fact, at first, I did not want him on the show. CBS pushed hard to include him in the cast.”
At least it’s a happy ending, as Probst went on to say, “CBS were absolutely right and I was absolutely wrong. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever been that wrong. Caleb is rock-solid and I am so happy he is on the show.”
15. Some Of The Cast Restrictions
One of the big things the show needs to make sure they have in order is the contract that they make every player sign prior to appearing on the show. The contract has several restrictions, but one you may find the most interesting is that the show reserves the right to enter them into a “talent hold agreement,” in case they want to cast them in other shows.
They also must agree to notify the producers if they discover that they know one of the fellow contestants (though obviously for All-Star seasons, this would not apply).
Survivors are also told that they are unable to write a book talking about the experiences. There are exceptions to every rule, such as the stipulation that was built into Jessica “Sugar” Kiper’s contract (as acting was her career) that allowed her to continue acting shortly after her time in Survivor ended.
14. Someone Tried To Do Coke
If you were trying to make it 39 days on an island and you came across some cocaine, perhaps you’d be intrigued as well! Especially when you find out that player was Shane Powers from Survivor: Panama who had been suffering from nicotine withdrawals. Bruce Kanegai, a fellow contestant explained the situation during an interview, saying “Shane took the machete and sliced it open and got to take a snort…then, the crew confiscated it. We could have gone a long ways without sleeping.”
The kilogram of coke had washed up on the beach and was discovered by Shane and Aras, but this is unfortunately just another story that proves how diligent the camera crew is!
13. How To Get Cast
While above you read about the recruiting part of the castaways, there are definitely still regular people that made compelling enough auditions. Lynne Spillman is one of the main casting directors and has opened up in the past about some of the biggest things people can do to get cast:
Take risks in your audition video, know and prove you know the show enough before auditioning (why you’d be a good winner). There are a variety of ways to apply as well (open calls, video applications etc…) and Spillman pointed out how several people get cast on the show because they keep auditioning and even if they don’t make it on their first season, they’re kept in consideration.
12. What Hygiene Items People Get Access To
One of the big consistent draws of the show is just how dirty and broken down the contestants’ bodies get after 30+ days in the game. So naturally when Probst sat down for an interview, he was asked about the amount of hygiene products the castaways receive. He responded, “They have access to a container with necessary supplies, such as feminine products, birth control, vital medications, contact lens solution, sunscreen, and insect repellent. Otherwise, they’re on their own,” said Probst.
Probst went on to say that some contestants may elect to laser hair removal or teeth whitening prior to going on the show, as razors and toothbrushes are definitely not included in the hygiene kit (though they can occasionally be won on the show).
11. The Cast Is Never Alone
Do you want to have 39 days of your life get documented 24/7? Then just make sure you end up going on and winning Survivor, as there isn’t damn near anything that isn’t covered by crew members. The camera crew is often set up in “camera camps,” with cots, food, and various equipment necessary. When a tribe member is sent to Exile, one producer would accompany him to the island (even if none of that footage gets used).
In an interview, someone who works on the camera crew admitted that the only time contestants get privacy is if they say they need to go to the washroom. Similarly, if they ever discover something exciting (like an idol or an important alliance conversation) and it isn’t filmed, they need to “re-find it” on camera.
10. They Are Transported To Tribal Council and Challenges
While it may always seem like a big dramatic entry into the challenges or tribal council meetings (sometimes by boat), the reality is far from that exciting. Probst mentioned how contestants are transported in vehicles, often with black plastic that covers the windows to prevent castaways from seeing production equipment.
I suppose that explains why they don’t look like they show up at a challenge absolutely exhausted after their hike through the jungle! Imagine how relieved you would be if you were a castaway and you were expecting a huge long trek and then nope, here comes your car!
9. Contestants Are Not Allowed To Interact
Do you ever wonder how much small talk must go on between the contestants during some downtime like when waiting for Jeff Probst to start a challenge or begin tribal council? Turns out, no small talk at all! When contestants are being transported in between challenges or going into tribal council, they are literally forbidden to interact. The reason being that we would never see them get transported (it kills the mystery!) and as a result, if “key moments” went down during those segments, the crew would have no way of capturing it.
8. What Happens After Getting Voted Out
While we are sure big time fans may have some idea as to how Ponderosa works in Survivor, it’s definitely still a unique element of the show. No matter where you get voted off in the series, you’re sent to “Ponderosa,” which is essentially a special holding area for the contestants.
Many comfort items are there including food, television, cameras/DVDs, and video game consoles. If you were voted out prior to the jury selection (so during the first half of the game), you are moved out of Ponderosa into a neighboring area until filming ends. Survivor started chronicling the Survivors’ stay at Ponderosa during season 16 with an online segment Life at Ponderosa.
7. What The Show’s Biggest Mistake Was
When you consider how long Survivor has been on the air, you really can’t blame them for trying to add little twists to the game (such as hidden idols).
Do you have a specific twist that you hated above all else? Jeff Probst sure does, saying in an interview, “[The] Medallion of Power [from Survivor: Nicaragua]. I never liked it. Didn’t speak up loudly enough. We do make mistakes — we know that.”
The medallion was used to help offer potential “shortcuts” at challenges, the tradeoff being that at the next challenge, the other tribe could take the advantage. Fan reaction was mostly negative, making it perhaps less shocking that Probst hated it as well.
6. The Survivor Who Sued
If you’re a huge time fan of Survivor, or at least were at the start, you may remember Stacey Stillman who competed on the inaugural season of Survivor. Stillman was far from the most memorable player, lasting only 9 days, but she sure as hell gave producer Mark Burnett a headache.
Stillman sued CBS after she alleged that Burnett spoke out to several contestants urging them to vote Stillman out of the game, and not the original plan of fan-favorite Rudy Boesch.
Burnett replied saying he only told contestants to “Vote your conscience.”
Stillman sued for $75,000, but it was eventually settled out of court. As a result of this incident, cast members must agree to a gag order preventing them from talking out about the show negatively (or spoiling the outcome of seasons) or face a $5 million penalty.
5. Just How Little They Eat
It’s always shown on TV that the castaways get a minimal amount of food, but during one of the season finales Probst made a point of showing the audience that the contestants are literally living off half a coconut of rice a day. This worked out to roughly 100 calories a day, which is all the more ridiculous when you consider the amount of physicality that goes into the game. Bruce Kanegai, a former player, stated that he had roughly 4 complete meals total during his 25 days in the game.
4. How The Challenges Really Begin
When you see the contestants run through the challenges, it definitely looks like they know what they’re doing. But the big reason for that is the extreme amount of work the “Dream Team” goes through to make sure the challenges are in proper order.
After the contestants are prepped on the challenge by Jeff, cameras get shut off and contestants are walked through the course until everyone is 100% sure they know what is going on.
As well as this, there have definitely been instances where the contestants have gotten confused. If this happens, the challenge is also stopped and the cameras are switched off. The challenge is then re-taken from exactly that same spot while the contestants are told to remain still and silent.
3. The Clothing Is Out Of Their Control
Is there a Survivor that stands out in your mind as having a particularly revealing bathing suit? Chances are it may not have been them that selected it! The official Survivor rule book does denote that clothing needs to be pre-approved, but also points out that producers get the option to buy clothes that the contestants must wear (often so they fit into a particular stereotype). For example, Cochrane was given sweater vests to don because it made him appear nerdier.
The producer’s input is also why you often see the tribe members wearing clothing that are the same color as their tribe (despite them not technically knowing what tribe they’re on until the show starts).
2. When Jeff Was The Most Scared
You can imagine that after 33 seasons of hosting Survivor, Probst has seen all the hairy situations you can imagine. But when asked what his scariest moment was, you may not be shocked to hear he described a scene from Survivor: Kaoh Rong in which 3 participants all required medical aid at once.
The incident involved tribes digging in the hot sun to try and retrieve bags, during which Debbie, Cydney and Caleb Reynolds all suffered varying degrees of injuries.
Reynolds was the most significantly hurt, requiring a med evacuation after his body temperature rose to 107 degrees. Reynolds spent 5 days in an ICU following his evacuation and when describing his injuries in an interview, he said “If I walked outside in the sun, my skin felt like it was melting. I would get hot really easily. I’d sweat really easy. If I was inside without air conditioning, I’d be sweating. It really did affect me. My eyes hurt in the sun. I had five months of that.”
1. Just How Edited It Is
Of course, you know the show is going to be edited. By now you know tribal council is edited and the challenges are as well. But I’m going to end with an amazing anecdote from Cochrane, one of the most beloved players of the game. There was an incident during his season with Coach in which was trying to call him out on his cunning ways, but they edited it so heavily that it was framed like Cochrane was complimenting him.
A former player, Dan Foley, took extreme issue with how he was portrayed as seen by his description of a conversation he had with Probst in an interview.
“You did me wrong. You did me dirty. You screwed me on my edit. You made me look like a piece of s—.” And Jeff said, “How do you figure?” And I said, “You cherry-picked things to show, sometimes out of context.”
While it’s hard to blame Foley for being upset, after all, he looked like a sexist asshole on his season, it’s the risk you take when you sign up for a television show!