×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Survivor’ at 400: CBS Show Kicked Off Wave of Unscripted Series

Jeff Probst-hosted show has been on for 13 years, it's 27th season kicks off tonight

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.”

World Traveler

“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

More Biz

  • Discovery CEO David Zaslav Sees 2018

    Discovery CEO David Zaslav Sees 2018 Compensation Soar to $129.4 Million

    Discovery Inc. president-CEO David Zaslav is once again making headlines for an enormous compensation package. Zaslav’s 2018 compensation soared to $129.44 million in 2018, fueled by stock options and grants awarded as the longtime Discovery chief signed a new employment contract last July that takes him through 2023 at the cable programming group. Zaslav received [...]

  • Jonathan Lamy RIAA

    Jonathan Lamy Stepping Down From RIAA

    Jonathan Lamy, the Recording Industry Association of America’s longtime executive VP of communications and marketing, is stepping down from his post after 17 years, he announced today. As he put it in an email to Variety, “I started back in 2002, which means it’s been 17+ years, four different RIAA CEOs, three format changes and [...]

  • Fox Layoffs

    Disney-21st Fox Layoffs: TV Divisions Brace for Deep Cuts

    A second day of layoffs has begun on the Fox lot in the wake of Disney completing its acquisition of 21st Century Fox on Wednesday. Longtime 20th Century Fox Television Distribution president Mark Kaner is among the senior executives who were formally notified with severance details on Friday morning. 21st Century Fox’s international TV sales [...]

  • anthony pellicano

    Hollywood Fixer Anthony Pellicano Released From Federal Prison

    Anthony Pellicano, the Hollywood private eye whose wiretapping case riveted the industry a decade ago, was released from a federal prison on Friday, a prison spokeswoman confirmed. Pellicano was sentenced in 2008 to 15 years, following his conviction on 78 charges of wiretapping, racketeering, conspiracy and wire fraud. He had been in custody since 2003, [...]

  • This image taken from the Twitter

    HBO’s Reaction to Trump’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Campaign

    Everyone wants a piece of the “Game of Thrones” lemon cake. From Bud Light to Red Bull the world of Westeros is open to a lot of brand partnerships, unless you’re using that iconic typeface to push a political agenda. In November of 2018 President Donald Trump unveiled a “Thrones” inspired poster with the words [...]

  • Leaving Neverland HBO

    'Leaving Neverland' Lawsuit Proves to Be a Judicial Hot Potato

    The Michael Jackson estate sued HBO last month for airing the documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which accuses the late King of Pop of serial child sexual abuse. Since then, the case has had a difficult time finding a judge to handle it. Three federal judges have recused themselves in the last week, citing potential financial conflicts [...]

  • Members of the public mourn at

    Guy Oseary’s New Zealand Fundraiser Nears $150,000, Continues Raising Money

    In the wake of the horrific shootings at New Zealand mosques last week that killed some 49 people, Maverick chief Guy Oseary launched a GoFundMe campaign to “support those affected by this tragedy at this very difficult time,” and began it with an $18,000 donation. Boosted by donations from many celebrities — including Amy Schumer, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content