A guide to “Survivor”, the reality TV icon that continues to amaze

Often, at the start of every new Survivor season, host Jeff Probst gives a introduction about the location and theme of the season. Invariably, he ends with the phrase, “39 days, 20 (depending on the season) people, one survivor!”

It’s a fitting phrase for Survivor – the show has run for 15 years, 30 seasons and is still going strong. Those numbers are extraordinary.

A TV show doesn’t get to 30 seasons without doing some things really right, so here’s a look at what has made Survivor so iconic.

A winning format that’s also malleable

If you don’t already know how the show works, here’s a quick rundown:

  • Sixteen or more players are split between two or more “tribes”, are taken to a remote isolated location (usually in a tropical climate) and are forced to live off the land with meager supplies for roughly a month.
  • Frequent physical challenges are used to pit the teams against each other for rewards, such as food or luxuries, or for “immunity”, forcing the other tribe to attend “Tribal Council”, where they must vote off one of their players.
  • Once about half the players are remaining, the tribes are merged into a single tribe, and competitions are on an individual basis; winning immunity prevents that player from being voted out, while several that are voted out at this stage form the game’s “jury”.
  • Once down to two or three people, a final Tribal Council is held where the remaining players plead their case to the jury members.
  • The jury then votes for which player should be considered the “Sole Survivor” and win the show’s prize. (from Wikipedia)

This is the basic format of the show, which can be modified between seasons to keep the show fresh: the number of contestants every season, for example, has varied from 16 to 20, and the contestants have been split into three or four initial tribes on a few seasons.

As the show goes on, and the challenge to sustain audience interest gets harder every season, recent seasons have utilised twists and themes to spice up the game. The upcoming season, “Cambodia”, will have 20 contestants, each of them having played before and chosen by public vote to return. Previously, “Blood vs Water” featured a group of returning contestants playing with their loved ones.

The gameplay has also been changed in previous seasons: the season “Redemption Island” was literally a game-changer, as contestants that were voted out at tribal council could go instead to Redemption Island, having duels to eliminate each other for good and the last contestant returning to the game at a later point.

Some of the twists have been more gimmicky than others – “Cagayan” had its initial contestants divided into 3 tribes based on their “brains”, “brawn” and “beauty”, while “Nicaragua” had its contestants divided into two tribes based on age. That season was also notorious for the introduction of the dubious Medallion of Power, which gave the tribe that used it at an immunity challenge an advantage, but in turn giving the opposing tribe an advantage at the next immunity challenge. (The Medallion of Power was retired after 5 episodes that season.)

However, several twists have remained – the hidden immunity idol was first used in the 11th season “Guatemala” and has become a crucial part of the gameplay. The Survivor Auction, a special segment replacing a reward challenge where contestants can bid on food items or other useful items, was introduced in the 3rd season “The Australian Outback” and has featured in 16 seasons so far, becoming a favourite among TV viewers. Check out one particular iteration in “Gabon”:

Survivor is a deep, strategic game

With all the intricacies in gameplay, Survivor strategy is complex and a thrill for anybody watching.

The game tests contestants’ physical and mental abilities throughout its duration, from the first day where they are forced to survive on a harshly reduced diet to the regular strenuous challenges. The regular immunity challenges offer immunity to each winner, meaning that a contestant can possibly win his or her way to the final episodes without facing a vote from his or her tribemates. However, that feat is extremely difficult to achieve, partly because the immunity challenges may test contestants’ strength, agility, endurance, coordination, and puzzle-solving abilities in any combination. (The winner of the most recent season “Worlds Apart”, Mike Holloway, gave one of the most dominant performances of recent seasons and even then, won only 5 out of 10 individual immunity challenges.)

Due to the difficulty of winning immunity, much of Survivor gameplay relies on avoiding being voted out at each tribal council. The voting at each tribal council usually comes down to opposing blocs of allied contestants (“alliances”) voting to weaken each other’s alliance.

In some situations, this can disintegrate into weeks of predictable voting as a dominant alliance, with a majority in numbers, picks off a smaller alliance steadily over a few episodes (as happened in “Redemption Island”), but in some situations, a contestant’s loyalty to a particular alliance may be shaken and the contestant convinced to switch his or her vote to another alliance instead (or “flip”, in Survivor lingo.) Flipping can lead to a “blindside”, an unexpected vote for an unsuspecting contestant.

The voting gameplay in Survivor has evolved to accommodate the various twists. The hidden immunity idol, for one, is now a prized possession as the contestant who finds it can play it at any time in the game, leading to immense power for whoever finds it. Used correctly, the hidden immunity idol even can lead to a blindside. Check out this video that shows how it can be done:

The challenges are immensely entertaining

Survivor has come a long way since its first season “Borneo”, and its challenges have become more intricate. The challenges on the show fall into two categories: individual competiiton or group. A challenge can be as simple as keeping your balance, or a multi-part test like this:

Each season’s final immunity challenge is especially memorable, as it is supposed to provide the toughest test to the remaining contestants. In “Blood vs Water”, the final challenge was a gruelling sequence of stairs, obstacles and puzzles:

Or it can just be as simple as standing on two stumps and holding on to a totem pole:

The challenges on Survivor are designed and built weeks in advance, and it’s no wonder – they are absolutely vital to the game. Challenges add a competition element to the game, reveal the dynamics between the groups in competition, and when all else is irrelevant, are wildly entertaining.

How to become the sole survivor

  • First, be good at challenges. Winning immunity allows you to relax for the upcoming tribal council. Win consecutive immunity challenges and you’ll have more time to focus on your social game. The final immunity challenge, where the winner automatically enters the final tribal council, is the single most important of the game.
  • Be a good social player, even if you are good at challenges. Make allies as soon as you can, and be loyal to them as and when you need their loyalty in return. You’ll make enemies as the game progresses and you have to betray someone’s trust eventually, but all the good impressions you make on people will pay off if you get to the final tribal council and the jury vote.
  • Find the hidden immunity idol quick, and be smart about using it. Russell Hantz managed to find 3 hidden immunity idols during “Samoa”, helping him to a runner-up finish. A hidden immunity idol need not just be a defensive tool to negate any votes cast against you, as letting other people know you have it may change how people cast votes.
  • Be prepared to make tough decisions at the right timing. Due to the tendency for contestants to group into alliances for stronger voting power, flipping to another alliance and changing the course of the game is possible, but only at the right timing. Likewise for playing an hidden immunity idol, or even just sticking with your current alliance; a move made early on in the game can lead to a win or a loss later on.

Bonus: 15 years, 30 seasons, 1 Jeff Probst!

You tend to repeat certain phrases after hosting for 30 seasons…

Or you really, really, want to get the final jury vote personally to Los Angeles for the reunion episode.

No, Jeff, you’re the stud.


Survivor: Cambodia, the show’s 31st season, premieres next week on CBS.

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