As Survivor returns to CBS on March 9 for its 42nd season, cast members and fans alike know exactly what to expect. More important, in the world of Survivor they know what not to expect: enough food or shelter, or the option for competitors to let their guard down for even a minute during their 26-day journey.
“You take a group of people and force them to rely on each other to survive in the wild while voting each other out. It sounds so simple, but it’s incredibly complex,” says Survivor host and executive producer Jeff Probst about the series’ winning formula, which has kept it on the air for a remarkable 22 years.
How Survivor keeps winning
It all began in the summer of 2000, when then-CBS honcho Les Moonves took a chance on a “Swiss Family Robinson meets Lord of the Flies” pitch from a little-known British television producer, Mark Burnett. The idea suited the network, which wanted to expand its fresh television programming into the typically repeat-filled summer months. (Remember, back in those days, Netflix was just a two-year-old DVD delivery service and Amazon Prime wasn’t delivering everything from toilet paper to refrigerators straight to our doorsteps, let alone streaming content into every device we owned.)
Burnett, who has gone on to helm powerhouse reality shows including The Apprentice, Shark Tank and The Voice, tapped Probst to host Survivor from day one, lauding his creative instincts as central to the show’s enduring success despite the mercurial tastes of reality television fans.
Probst, who has snagged four outstanding reality host Emmys along the way, says Survivor’s essential formula hasn’t wavered, and that’s what hard-core fans love about the show. “Purists will often stop me to tell me they don’t think we need any twists at all,” he says. “They say, ‘Just let the players form alliances and play the game, Jeff!’”
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Playing inside the Survivor formula to keep it fresh
You could make a case, Probst acknowledges, that “you don’t need to do anything else with the format or the rules. Just rinse and repeat year after year.” But he likes to think of the overall structure of the show as a box. “You have to stay within the box,” Probst says, “but within the box you can do anything. For us that’s where the fun lives. We’ve added twists and advantages going all the way back to the very early seasons, and they serve a specific purpose. They create uncertainty that forces players to constantly assess and then adapt accordingly.”
A new, more inclusive Survivor
That said, who gets to compete on Survivor has undergone a drastic — and welcome, Probst says — change. In accordance with CBS’ 2020 50 percent diversity mandate, which ensures that half of its reality TV casts must be Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC), Survivor's casts immediately became far more diverse, beginning with Season 41 last fall. (In fact, a group of Black Survivor alumni who spoke up about the experiences and difficulties they faced as minorities on the show is credited with jump-starting the series’ — and the network’s — commitment to inclusivity.)
“This will go a long way in extending the life of the show,” Probst says. He’s already impressed with its impact on Survivor 41 and what he calls its “amazing stories and players from all different walks of life,” as well as Survivor 42’s “great diversity and unique stories. It’s very exciting and inspiring.”
Gayle Jo Carter, the former entertainment editor at USA WEEKEND magazine, has interviewed newsmakers for AARP, USA WEEKEND, USA Today, Parade, Aspire and Washington Jewish Week.