On the sandy beaches of the remote Malaysian island Pulau Tiga, a TV production crew found itself on the brink of exhaustion.
After 20 days of living in tents, battling the elements, taking cold-water showers and enduring separation from their loved ones, the group was approaching its breaking point — perhaps even more so than the 16 contestants vying for the $1 million prize on “Survivor: Borneo,” the first season of the now-iconic CBS program.
Mark Burnett, a relative unknown producer who brought this band of adventurers to the shores of the South China Sea, saw the cast and crew’s morale dipping. So he gathered his team and launched into a speech that’s seared into the memory of “Survivor” host (and now exec producer) Jeff Probst.
Simply put: “Mark said we were creating a show that was going to change television,” Probst recalls.
Aware of the skepticism, Burnett led his crew to monitors nearby and allowed them to see the first 15 edited minutes of “Survivor’s” first episode.
“It was incredible,” Probst says. “There was Richard Hatch, and the rest of the cast living and behaving in a way you’d never seen before on television. It galvanized the crew, and for me, it was the moment when I realized I was working with a world-class storyteller.”
That was more than 13 years ago. “Survivor,” whose slogan is “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast,” has done just that on reality TV, managing to log a whopping 26 seasons as a twice-yearly staple of the Eye’s schedule.
Burnett’s team has seasons 27 and 28 on deck for the 2013-14 season.
The adventure competition series, which was loosely based on the Swedish format “Expedition Robinson,” has broadly impacted unscripted programming, from the emergence of household catchphrase “the tribe has spoken,” to the pervasive “alliance” structure seen on many present-day competition show.
“‘Survivor’s’ DNA is everywhere,” explains Probst. “ Whether it’s how you involve interviews, confessionals, use challenges to create reality or separate people to develop adversaries, anything that’s competition reality-driven probably has some trace of ‘Survivor’ in it.”
Even as Probst stood slack-jawed at the innovative footage of “Survivor’s” first episode in 2000, he still had his doubts.
“I thought it was going to be a show that had a PBS audience — a smart audience, but not a big one,” he remarks. “And someone had said (CBS topper) Les Moonves said, ‘This show will go 20 seasons,’ and I was thinking, ‘Yeah, ha, 20 seasons, right,’ and expected only three.”
“Survivor” didn’t take long to explode in a primetime juggernaut, drawing nearly 52 million viewers for its first-season finale. In the summer of 2000, the show transcended the smallscreen to become the kind of national cultural event that TV executives and producers dream of creating.
The story is only enhanced by the fact that the show had been shopped all over town by Burnett.
It had been formally set up in development at ABC for a time before the Alphabet passed. The property landed on Moonves’ desk at the urging of then-CBS programming exec Ghen Maynard.
CBS sent shockwaves through the biz in February 2001, when it boldly slated the second edition of “Survivor” in the Thursday at 8 p.m. slot opposite NBC’s sitcom supremo, “Friends.”
With that move, the Eye put unscripted programming on the same pedestal as scripted — and dealt a fatal blow to NBC’s Must-See TV lineup.
“Survivor” has never reached the ratings heights as its first few editions. But since those formative days on Pulau Tiga, the show has traveled around the world to the Australian Outback, Africa, the Amazon and China, to name just a few locations. Crews have endured scorpion stings, snake bites, piranhas and dengue fever. Seasons featuring fan faves, villains and beloved competitors kept the format of “Survivor” fresh without deviating from the familiar structure that auds love, and the series has blossomed overseas with several foreign iterations.
“The numbers may have changed, but ‘Survivor’ is still holding its own, helping the network average and bringing in young viewers,” says CBS alternative head Jennifer Bresnan.
For Burnett, the key to the show’s longevity is the drama that is inherent in its premise — sending 16 strangers to unfamiliar surroundings and challenging them to use their wits to survive.
“ ‘Survivor’ is about hope, rejection and rebirth,” Burnett says. “There’s a great spiritual feeling and faith to ‘Survivor.’ Understanding what it means to tell a story of hope is understanding why ‘Survivor’ has gone 27 seasons.”
Bamboo, Blisters and Bats
Surviving “Survivor” brings its own set of challenges, along with the inevitable slew of great anecdotes. After battling fires, flooding and typhoons, “Survivor” alums reflect on their most memorable moments from lensing the veteran reality series.
Jesse Jensen, co-exec producer
“On the scout for the Great Wall of China during season 15, a bunch of us ended up sleeping up on top of the wall for the night. We stayed up all night drinking cheap red wine and having a great laugh. Pretty surreal but an amazing experience.
“What I personally find the worst natural element to deal with is the constant heavy rain we get some seasons. It’s hard to work in (and) slows everything down — everything is constantly wet and moldy, and you really start to forget what the sun looked like. Although when you find it really getting to you, you only have to think of the poor contestants on the beach and them enduring the same conditions with nothing. Instantly, it all comes into perspective, and you start to be thankful for the raincoat, regular meals and a decent roof to sleep under.”
Jeff Probst, host/exec producer
“In the first season, there was a violent storm and we were in a tribal council. (Mark) Burnett is yelling, ‘Keep shooting! Keep shooting!’ and it was like a war zone. But this is real. This is what we want. This is not when we go inside and dry the lens; this is when we push in for a close-up.”
Parvati Shallow, “Survivor: Micronesia” champion
“In Micronesia, we had some really wild rainstorms, and at night, no one could sleep through them. So (competitor James Clement) and I went on a scouting mission and found a tiny cave, big enough to sleep one man comfortably. … The bats in the cave were hanging so close to our faces that I could feel the air from their fluttering wings. As the night went on, small things would jump off my chest and legs.
“In some ways, the crew have it even harder than the contestants. Yeah, we’re all starving and shivering in a bamboo shelter, and they get to go home to cozy beds and warm meals at night, but those guys are also lugging heavy equipment through the mud and sprinting a er us in scorching jungle heat as we wildly chase down immunity idols.”
John Cochran, “Survivor: Caramoan” champion
“Virtually everyone associated with ‘Survivor’ has certain traits in common: chiseled physiques, sun-kissed skin and the capacity to enjoy tropical climates. That’s what made my bond with Brian — a producer and fellow unathletic, pale redhead — all the more special. During the first few days of filming for season 26, my skin was blistered by the sun. Even though Brian couldn’t speak to me, the pained, empathetic expression in his eyes said it all: ‘I feel for you, man.’
“I remember one night, when I was drifting off to sleep, I felt something lightly brush up against my wrist. And again, and again. Upon opening my eyes, I saw a colony of bats circling my body, their wings gently hitting against my arms. I immediately began shrieking and flailing around, much to the delight of my tribemates.”
“Survivor” has been on the air for 13 years, its 400th episode kicks off the 27th season tonight.
2000 – Borneo
2001 – Australian Outback; Africa
2002 – Marquesas; Thailand
2003 – The Amazon; Pearl Islands
2004 – All-Stars; Vanuatu
2005 – Palau; Guatemala
2006 – Panama; Cook Islands
2007 – Fiji; China
2008 – Micronesia; Gabon
2009 – Tocantins; Samoa
2010 – Heroes vs. Villains; Nicaragua
2011 – Redemption Island; South Pacific
2012 – One World; Philippines
2013 – Caramoan; Blood vs. Water