Wednesday night marks 500 episodes of Survivor with Survivor: Game Changers premiering on CBS, and it’s a moment that one decade ago was hard to imagine. Shows don’t make it this far, especially in an era of DVRs, streaming, competition, and instant entertainment everywhere. Ratings fall. Yet, the show’s remained remarkably consistent through the years, falling slightly but at a pace that is still above the majority of the competition.
There is an article somewhere in here about the history and profession of Survivor ratings through the years. That isn’t today’s article. This is about what the show means to someone who remembers watching it vividly with eyeglasses full of awe many years ago, and the heart-pounding feeling that comes whenever a tribal council happens and you’re down to just a vote or two that determines who stays and who goes. This comes from someone who’s written reviews for fifteen seasons, interviewed hundreds of castaways, and somehow still keeps coming back looking for further insight, secrets as to how to play this game. That is the glorious thing about Survivor. It’s a white slate every season. Previous seasons, backgrounds, history, wealth. None of it matters if you can play the game and play it well.
This is a story of a writer and a viewer’s journey through 499 episodes of this show.
The origin story
Some things come easy to you, like learning that pizza is delicious or that watching YouTube videos of people falling in the snow is funny. Survivor didn’t necessarily come that easy. As a social outcast growing up, there was a natural proclivity to run from things that felt popular. In this mindset you try to attach yourself to the counterculture in hopes of finding things of which you identify. When Survivor premiered, that wasn’t one of them; everyone loved it. It first came about during our middle-school years, and while there were people wearing “don’t vote me out” t-shirts wandering the halls, we weren’t one of them. Other than seeing a few seconds here and there of the Stacey / Rudy tribal council and then the final episode, it was not a time when we found ourselves craving knowledge of Sue Hawk or Richard Hatch. At the time there was that aforementioned feeling that perhaps it was too cool — it was a show on paper about making it through in the wilderness — camping and survivalist stuff was never a personal forte. (That feeling didn’t last. When meeting Boston Rob and Amber in 2009 at a promotional gig, we told him that Survivor was a guilty pleasure, hardly something you’d relate to the word cool. His response was — insert Boston Rob voice — “what do you have to feel guilty about?”. Our response? Mortified with embarrassment.)
It wasn’t until Survivor: The Australian Outback when we started watching weekly, and the understanding of what the game was started to come into play: It was about having the strongest alliance as much as it was how good you were in challenges or how impressive a shelter you could build. This was the season with the fire, with the pig, with the original black widow, and the season where it really mattered how good you made people feel about you before the end of the game. Colby Donaldson didn’t appeal himself to the other players in the way Tina Wesson did. This was our first occasion of not understanding the nuance of the game in the moment, but getting a better sense of it after the fact. This is something we’ll admit to in the shameless Survivor admissions section of this article as we get a little further along.
Through these glorious first seasons it’s easy to admit to being a fair-weather Survivor fan, given how some viewing habits depended heavily on the players and their performance. Africa was boosted heavily by Ethan’s win, Marquesas was boosted by Kathy and Sean, and then Thailand was … well, Thailand was the first and only time in which we bailed on a season midway through since getting on board the show. The people were so unlikable, and the Ted / Ghandia situation so uncomfortable that we actually stopped watching a week or two later. As a result of that, Survivor: The Amazon was off the radar and is the only full season in which we didn’t watch a single second of live. Both it and Thailand were revisited later, which is a good thing since The Amazon third-place finisher Rob Cesternino’s podcast is a sensational companion to all things Survivor and something we were thrilled to dive into after learning about it the summer before Survivor: Philippines.
Pearl Islands was the season that resurrected our love for the game, and there are plenty of reasons why. Rupert. Jonny Fairplay. Sandra. Legendary people. Rupert stole shoes. Fairplay’s grandmother “died.” These were iconic TV moments that stemming from pure human behavior. They weren’t scripted out, and there was that fear in watching every week that someone beloved was going to go. Rupert was never going to win that season (even if it was the peak of his popularity), but there was something missing when he left. In another shameless confession, we almost wanted to stop watching at the time. As a reminder, we were in high school, and still didn’t understand nuance as much as “cool pirate beard.” (The biggest disappointment of this season in retrospect was being robbed of a Fairplay – Lil final two.)
The path to Survivor writing
This would be a 10,000-word feature if we went through and detailed the highs and lows of every season of the show. That’s not what the purpose of this is. Therefore, let’s fast-forward a little bit through many of the middle seasons like Palau, Cook Islands, and Panama up to about the time in which China was airing. That’s when another reality show entitled Beauty and the Geek came up on the radar thanks to casting people scouting our SMU campus in Dallas. Being a part of that casting pool and going through the experience ignited a further love for all reality TV; in turn, Survivor viewings expanded outward to more strategic discussions with roommates in college. There’s something magical about getting people hooked on Survivor who weren’t previously, and getting to share this great part of your TV life with them. It’s more than just a show — it’s a social study and a discussion piece. It’s offering up something you hold dear and saying “join my world.”
While it wasn’t quite shown during the Beauty and the Geek broadcast (it wouldn’t be, since the two are very different shows with different editing focuses), there were some parts of Survivor strategy that we implemented to get further into that game. For example, take a look at alliance-building, or the idea of trying to downplay your own abilities in challenges. There’s even something to be said for trying to simply be a decent person to be around. As a reality TV player, people like Vecepia and Todd were big influences in our perception of strategy. Given that Survivor is not a game we’ve ever had any desire to go off in play (a lack of survival skills and terrible vision are big factors in that), Beauty and the Geek was a great opportunity to experience being within that world and going through some of the feelings of paranoia and suspicion around every corner.
Yet, in going along with what we just discussed paragraph, this also is not an article about Beauty and the Geek. It’s the story of influences colliding and allowing us to experience Survivor to the fullest.
Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites was the last time that we fell behind in episodes because of filming and BATG airing, but in catching up on it during the season really started us down the path of writing about the show. Enter Survivor: Gabon.
It’s probably been mentioned casually here and there in various CarterMatt articles, but Ken Hoang and Stephen Fishbach are the two players we credit the most in turning us from a loyal Survivor viewer into a diehard fan and writer / student of the game. They were people we related to on either a social or intellectual level. Kenny was a Super Smash Bros. Melee super-gamer, and our roommate in college was someone who competed in tournaments and was very familiar with Ken’s work. This was one of the first times we felt some sort of indirect link or connection to a player, and it was exciting. It was an inspiration to start reading more Survivor content, visiting message boards, and seeing what the wider community was. Ken, who shared a deep love of video games, was playing to win the million dollars!
One of the things that’s always plagued us as a Survivor viewer is the lack of other loyal viewers in our social sphere. Beyond the college years, we’ve never known too many other people who are diehard fans of the game. Experiencing the Survivor internet — other writers and message boars — opened up an entirely new world. Sure, it was one that infuriatingly exposed us to Heroes vs. Villains spoilers down the road (which took away a good chunk of our love for that season), but it was a lovely world nonetheless.
Did Kenny become incredibly arrogant at the end of his season, to the point he shot himself in the foot? Absolutely, and while Stephen played an excellent game in Tocantins and we wanted him to win (he played probably closer in that season to how we’d want to), it was a victory in itself seeing him get second place. It was proof that the geeks could do it, and that was something that people like Cochran and Sophie further proved down the line.
The first article we ever wrote about Survivor was about the Tocantins finale, as we published it at our first writing job right out of college. We published all sorts of content from Samoa and Redemption Island on another site — One World was the first season in which we started covering exclusively on CarterMatt after co-founding the site in July 2011. The first exit interview we ever did anywhere was Yasmin Giles of Survivor: Samoa — following that, it was Ben “The Outlaw” Browning. Interviewing Ben, who made extremely offensive comments that certainly would play even worse in 2017, was basically the equivalent of getting thrown into the Survivor fire.
The fondest memories
There are still many exit interviews that stand out. There was a conference call between Russell Hantz and Natalie White that felt like an episode of The Jerry Springer Show. There’s still pride in speaking to Shambo before she disappeared from the planet (for the record, she said she wouldn’t play again even if the show gave her $1 million), and speaking to people like Tony Vlachos and Natalie Anderson proved to be well worth the cost of admission. Max Dawson was a fun one just because you could sense his love for the game in every word he spoke. Even if he’s lost much of his luster over the years, speaking with Rupert thrilled our inner Survivor teenager. Interviewing Richard Hatch at Reality Rally in 2016, even if it was brief, was a dream come true.
Even some of the awkward interviews turned out to be memorable. There were so many meta moments around Dan Foley given how his exit interviews became a storyline at the Worlds Apart reunion. There were people like Andrew Savage who we turned out to have a wonderful discussion with despite not rooting for him on the show.
Then, there were the emotional ones. We remember speaking with Katie Collins after a family tragedy following Blood vs. Water, recounting with Caleb Reynolds him almost dying on Kaoh Rong, or Terry Deitz explaining coming home after learning of his son’s condition on Cambodia.
Through all of this, there was one brief opportunity to speak with Jeff Probst when he hopped on a conference call during Redemption Island. We asked him about Cochran’s odds of sticking around. He gave a Boston Rob quote in response. This went much better than the Boston Rob in-person encounter.
Our focus with Survivor interviews is always that it’s not about who we are — it’s about giving the person on the other line a chance to decompress in a way where they are being heard and never judged, and it’s about giving the reader as genuine a conversation as there can be in a limited amount of time. Depending on the mood, there are opportunities for a laugh here and there. Maybe there are some chances to geek out about past seasons. It varies. These are one of our few opportunities to really just celebrate Survivor — as mentioned, we’re not someone who communicates about the game often in real life, and we’re also not someone who’s done much in the show podcast circuit.
There are of course exit interviews where upon reflection, we’d do a few things differently. The same goes for reviews or anything else. Any rational human being would. Still, through the past almost-eight years of writing about television full time, there is no show that has provided such enrichment, depth, and fun as a writer or a viewer.
Still, there are more goals
Sure, we’ve got 500 episodes of Survivor, but to paraphrase a Jeff Probst line, this is just the 500th episode coming up. With the ratings staying reasonably steady, there could be hundreds of episodes still to come down the line.
There are still so many things on our personal bucket list. Somehow, we haven’t been to a finale yet — to be fair, we also were outside of Los Angeles until a little more recently, but it’d be great to finally have it happen. We’d love to step foot on the beach someday and do interviews remotely. We’d love to discuss the game more via a podcasts here or there — though not our own, given that there are so many fantastic options out there as-is. It’s good to have goals, and things you still want to achieve — you never want to stop learning or growing. Survivor is a beautiful game, and covering it is something that Teenager Matt never would have fathomed. Even when our Survivor passion flourished a year or two later, writing about the show on this level still felt elusive and out of reach.
Covering this show and being a part of this world for 499 episodes has been a tremendous thrill, and it’s hard to even express the gratitude that we have towards anyone who’s ever read a single article. Even if you’d disagreed with a point or wished a different question was asked in an interview, you’re appreciated all the same. Survivor may be offering up Game Changers this season, but we’ll always celebrate the show for being a life-changer in a way that is difficult to describe. (We’ve just tried to for almost 2,500 words!)
A few more shameless Survivor confessions
1. Even though he more or less quit, we still want to see Ian from Palau on another season.
2. Add to that list Helen from Thailand, Tracy from Fans vs. Favorites, and anyone from Guatemala.
3. Susie was the best person in the final three of Gabon and should’ve won that season.
4. Jonas from One World is an extremely underrated Survivor character.
5. We’re far too eager to see the show end someday in a tie just to see what would happen.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for watching Survivor. Thanks for commenting. We hope to see you later this week when the show returns. (Photo: CBS.)