20 Years of Survivor

Birth of a Phenomenon – An Oral History of Survivor: Borneo

As told by members of the cast and crew…

Photo: CBS

On Wednesday, May 31, 2000, over fifteen million viewers tuned into CBS as a group of men and women plunged from a ship into the South China Sea. “You are witnessing sixteen Americans begin an adventure that will forever change their lives,” explained the young, as-yet-unknown host in the oversized khaki t-shirt and way-too-short shorts. Bodies collided as people rushed to salvage whatever they could from the deck. Fishing traps and wooden crates crashed into the ocean. Voices bellowed to be heard above the pandemonium. “They must learn to adapt, or they’re voted off…” came the warning as the wide-eyed castaways clambered aboard their bamboo rafts and began rowing towards the desert island in the distance.

“39 days… 16 people… 1… Survivor.”

Over the summer, this show about sixteen strangers building a new society while voting one another off the island became a cultural phenomenon. Survivor was suddenly everywhere: from late-night talk shows to the cover of Time magazine. Workplace water-coolers were the bustling hubs of castaway gossip every Thursday morning. Dedicated fansites and message boards popped up across the Internet. Each week the viewership continued to rise… fifteen million, twenty million, thirty million! “The summer television sensation Survivor is quickly working its way into American pop culture,” wrote USA Today. The show seemingly came out of nowhere—an instant overnight success.

In reality, Survivor was years in the making, a journey that crossed continents and was paved with many bumps and obstacles along the way. From the frustrating boardroom pitches to filming in the wild and uninhabited jungles of Borneo, Survivor battled with the elements, worried network executives, and unruly contestants, all while figuring out what this show was, what it would become, and if anyone would even watch the damn thing.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Survivor‘s debut, I reached out to several members of the original cast and crew, who, in their own words, describe how Survivor came together and changed the face television.

Disclaimer: Some answers have been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.

To understand how Survivor started, we need to travel back to the late 1980s, when the idea was merely a thought bubble in the mind of Charlie Parsons—a British television producer who spent several years trying to get the show off the ground.

CHARLIE PARSONS (executive producer): The origins of Survivor lay in a TV show I did for Channel 4 in the UK called Network 7. It was a magazine show aimed at under thirty-fours, and I was its Series Editor. We had the idea of sending four people to a remote place with very little and seeing how they got on: we sent a soap-opera star, a famous tennis player, a stockbroker and an ex-criminal. They went to an island off Sri Lanka, and we filmed it over a few weeks. There were no games or tasks, just a crew following them. It was great to watch. When I went to run my own TV production company, Planet24, I knew if I could develop this idea into something that was long-running and could be repeated, it would make interesting TV.

Parsons meticulously plotted out the details of the show throughout the 1990s, though finding a network to take a chance on the idea wasn’t easy. Unexpectedly, Sweden became the first country to give the format a shot.

PARSONS: Over the next few years, I developed it on paper with a team. We worked out what the beats were and what each episode should contain, subject to the behavior of the contestants. The original document with the idea was incredibly detailed, every nuance was covered. And very little was left to chance. Essentially, we were putting a group of people in a remote place and testing them, but the tests were well-thought through. It had taken years. Network 7 was in 1988; Survivor went on air in Sweden in 1997. But in Sweden, they didn’t want to use our name, which was “Survive,” but Expedition Robinson… because of the Daniel Defoe associations it had.

Despite success in Scandinavia, selling the show in America proved to be a more arduous task, though it came close on a couple of occasions. 

PARSONS: Part of the long development process involved developing it with the help of Buena Vista, a Disney distribution company. In the early 90s, they gave us some money to try to make it work. It moved it along a lot. But when it came to it, the US networks loved the idea but thought it too risky. They had never seen a show like this—it didn’t fall into any normal category. It wasn’t an entertainment show set in a studio, it wasn’t a documentary, it wasn’t a drama. It’s difficult to remember the days pre-reality TV, but this really broke the mold—but too much for the buyers.

Parsons’ luck changed in 1995 after a chance meeting with a fellow Brit, the aggressively ambitious Mark Burnett. An emerging producer himself, Burnett had achieved a modicum of success in the US with his adventure race show, Eco-Challenge, and instantly fell in love with the Survivor concept.

PARSONS: I met Mark Burnett in Los Angeles at a party held by a mutual friend. [Burnett] was a jobbing producer then, but when I told him what I was working on, he said this was the thing he’d like to do. And he nagged and nagged me for ages. Originally, I had wanted to produce it myself, but I had had a horrible year in the US trying to make a show with the wrong people—truly the most awful experience of my life. We had just sold our company, and I had kept the rights to Survivor from the new buyers, who couldn’t see its potential. I knew it was one of the best things I had ever done and could change the face of TV forever. Burnett said he wanted to go to the networks and sell it with me, and then make it. I came up with a deal where he took a license.

Burnett began pitching Survivor to US networks, and, in 1999, found a supporter in Ghen Maynard, who at the time was director of CBS’s drama development department. Maynard pushed for the network’s then President, Leslie Moonves, to listen to Burnett’s pitch. 

PARSONS: Mark was brilliant at getting sponsors, which tipped the balance for CBS, who had nothing to lose by buying it: at that time it was the ailing network. Survivor changed its fortunes.

Survivor was allotted a prime-time summer slot for the following year. Now the real work began in scouting locations and putting together a crew, many of whom came from Eco-Challenge and other wilderness documentary-type productions—men and women with experience working in extreme conditions. 

MARIA BALTAZZI (producer): I was brought in as the fourth and last producer hired for the first season. A couple of the other producers who had already been hired onto the show recommended me. By then, in my career, I had done a fair amount of international productions. Plus, they wanted a female producer, knowing that a feminine sensibility would offer a different story perspective.

BRUCE HOLLISTER (art director): I was hired by Kelly Van Patter, the production designer, and asked to put together the art crew. I worked with [John] Kirhoffer to design the challenge sets after he and his crew came up with the challenges. Kelly ran the show, but she had so much other stuff to do. She did a lot of work with the producers, figuring out the look of the show and a lot of talking with the network and figuring out how exactly to get everything finished on time when we were all out on an island off the coast of Malaysia! That was kind of a full-time job. So a lot of, “Hey, we’re having this challenge,” or “Hey, we’re going to be shooting on this beach, and we need to interview these people,” fell to me. But I had a great crew, building sets from my napkin sketches, so it was very run-and-gun, but it was a blast. 

BALTAZZI: In the first season, I was a producer on my episodes. This was true for the other three episodic producers. I produced the second, sixth, and eleventh shows, plus the finale. As producers, we would rotate every three days on the beach before the merge. Then we adjusted our days post-merge, depending on the episode we were producing. I would show up with the first camera crews in the morning and stay until the tribe went to sleep at night. We were there to capture stories as they unfolded in real-time and interview the Survivors about what was happening.

Borneo Food Challenge
Photo: CBS

HOLLISTER: The crew was great, from the producers, some of whom I didn’t necessarily agree with, to electric, who were amazing, to camera crew who were some of the hardest working I’ve ever worked with. And the art department was just insane. We had a ton of local guys, and they all worked incredibly hard. We had a bunch of Australians that came up when it turns out it turned into a bigger show, and they were great.

PETER ‘BABYLON’ OWENS (prop maker): My girlfriend had a brother who was involved in the project from the beginning, I had never met or spoken to him as he lived in LA and we were in Sydney. I got a phone call from him, basically asking for help to get the project over the line. It sounded like they had organized most things but were well behind in terms of the build, dressings, and props for the show. They asked if I was willing to put a crew together and fly out the next day, which did ring some alarm bells. I rounded up a few of the best guys I knew and started to put a team together, working out what gear we could bring, share, or do without, and we were set. The team ended up being myself, Ross Cairns, Mark Powell, and Jesse Jensen. We left, and my parting words to the crew were, “This could be a great adventure or a complete s**t fight… are you ready?”

HOLLISTER: Jesse Jensen took over [as art director] when I left, for the second season. And he was a random hire when I called some friends and found out he was good [to come over]. [editor’s note: Jensen is now the show’s co-executive producer]

The show also required a host, who came in the form of a young, dimple-cheeked Jeff Probst, who was driving on the 405 in Los Angeles when he heard Burnett talking about Survivor on the radio. As Probst told the Television Academy Foundation in 2012, he immediately pulled over, ran to the nearest payphone, and called his agent to get him an audition.

PARSONS: What a find. With no baggage and loads of enthusiasm, Jeff was the perfect host. Contestants trusted and liked him—and so did viewers. There was no invasive ego there dominating the outcome. You felt from the beginning he was reporting on the proceedings, not too big a part. And behind the scenes, as his confidence grew, his contributions became essential. He is that unique combination, the perfect host, and [now] the visionary (executive) producer.

BALTAZZI: From the start, Jeff was active in his host role. He was not waiting around for someone to give him his words and only showing up for challenges and Tribal Council. Jeff was part of several of our producer meetings. He genuinely wanted to know what was happening on the beaches. Because of this, his role took on one of all-knowing. When the Survivors showed up for challenges and Tribal Council, he would ask questions relevant to the stories we were telling back at camp.

Most importantly of all, though, the show needed a cast. But where do you find sixteen people willing to be stranded on a deserted island and filmed for a crazy TV show nobody had ever heard of before?

LYNNE SPILLMAN (casting director): I was working for a producer at MTV who was also working with Mark Burnett on Eco-Challenge, and she introduced us. I had created a niche for myself in casting “real people.” Mark interviewed me for the job of casting director for season one, and the rest is history. I think I was the second person hired on the show. 

Spillman, who served as Survivor’s casting director until 2018, worked hand-in-hand with Burnett to scout for potential castaways, doing everything they could to attract applicants from across America.

SPILLMAN: Mark is a marketing genius! His plan was that we would use the press releases associated with the announcement of the show to get the word out. It was through the press that we told people how to apply. Everything was made into a news story. When the first person applied, that was a news story. When we announced that we would be traveling to different cites to do “open calls,” that was a story. We called all of the CBS affiliates for help spreading the word about the show and the open calls. We also handed out flyers at different sporting events all across the country. We covered the New York Marathon, gyms, hiking trails, parks, etc.

GERVASE PETERSON (castaway): My brother Gerald saw [an ad] online and thought that I would be perfect for the show. So he printed out the application and mailed it to me. I got it and thought he was crazy. I wanted to be an actor, and this wasn’t acting, it was being myself. So I tossed the application to the side.

RAMONA GRAY (castaway): I don’t remember who, but a friend sent me [an email] about the show. They said it sounded like something I would try—I guess because I’m a daredevil. Once I got the email, I decided right away that I would apply, because what’s the worse that could happen? They tell me “no”? You can’t win if you never even try. 

GRETCHEN CORDY (castaway): I first heard about Survivor on a radio station morning show on my way to work. I didn’t hear the whole break and missed most of the details. When I got to work, a friend, who was aware I had been a SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) instructor, had also heard about the show and filled me in on some of the details. I had been a fan of Mark Burnett’s Eco-Challenge and had always thought that would be an amazing experience. So, when I became aware this was his show, I really started considering applying, thinking they would be similar formats.

SPILLMAN: We did get a lot of survivalist types at first. I think that was mostly because Mark’s circle was from Eco-Challange and other adventure races, and that’s who the word got out to first. With the local affiliates helping us spread the word, eventually, the message of “the show is for all types of people” got out. We were looking for everyday people that were fit enough to survive living outdoors for thirty-nine days. Personally, I am going to age myself here, I always pictured it as Gilligan’s Island. My litmus test was, “What character would they be in Gilligan’s Island?” 

GERVASE: I was cleaning my room two days before the deadline, and I started reading [the application]. The questions they asked were funny, like, “If you could be anyone from Gilligan’s Island, who would you be and why?” So I filled it out, did the videotape, and next day mailed it to LA.

SEAN KENNIFF (castaway): I had recently completed my neurology training and was working extremely hard in a private practice. After so much studying and working, I felt I needed to do something more unorthodox. I had never traveled, never saw the world outside New York City. So I gave a two-and-a-half months notice to my partners that I was going to leave the practice. I was considering Doctors Without Borders, or to go work in some far off exotic medical clinic. A few days after I gave notice at my job… I picked up a Time magazine and was reading the magazine and drinking a beer… and I saw an article, “A STAR IS BORNEO.” A new show was being created that needed sixteen ordinary Americans to be stranded on a deserted island together. I figured I had nothing else to do in two-and-a-half months. 

JOEL KLUG (castaway): I had a friend that heard an ad on the radio. They were going to put sixteen people on an island, and the last person got one million dollars. I ignored his email the first few times he suggested I apply. On a random day, when I was visiting a client in Dallas, he emailed me again. I took a video camera out to the parking lot, propped it up on the dash of a car, and smarted off for a few minutes. I figured I would be the person who they would like to demonize, so I gave them a person to hate.

SPILLMAN: I think we only received two-thousand submissions total (including the open calls) for the first season. Remember, there was NO INTERNET! The use of email had JUST started. In order to apply, people had to film themselves and send in a VHS tape with contact information. Even making a video then was really time-consuming. 

GRETCHEN: My application started with a questionnaire and a video. The questions were basically, “What makes you believe you could compete?” and “If you could hold a political office which would it be?” My video was segmented. One segment was my son doing a spoof on a dubbed kung fu movie and me doing a parody of The Blair Witch Project, which was popular at the time. The video was rough, and the editing was laughable! I sent it off and forgot about it.

JOEL: After I made the tape, I mailed it to the Eco-Challenge production office. For some reason, I knew they would pick me… it was a strange feeling. I knew very little about the show or the process, but I thought I was going to get picked.

SPILLMAN: When a great video came in, it was obvious to us in casting. The casting producer assigned to that territory would open the package and watch the videos. If they really liked someone, they would usually yell to the group, “I got one,” or something like that. Then we would all gather round to watch. The casting office for season one was also the production office’s kitchen, so when we really liked someone, we would make a copy of whatever picture they sent in and put it on the refrigerator to celebrate. 

A few hundred of those who applied were then invited to interviews in various cities across the US.

GRETCHEN: I received a packet in the mail with instructions on attending an “in-person” interview. It was in Chicago, which is about a seven-hour drive [from my home]. It would mean a babysitter and a hotel room. I felt guilty spending the money and leaving on what seemed like a whim but decided to move forward with it thinking this might be one of my last chances to go La Vida Loca.

GERVASE: The application and videotape was round one. Round two was an interview with a producer and a person from casting. They asked me all types of questions, nothing was off-limits. Out of the fifty people from Philadelphia, I was the only one to make it to the next round. 

JOEL: I showed up to my interview very hungover. When I came in, I was met by a PA. As luck would have it, I had recently been courting a new gym, and this person was a member of this location. He told me they would be looking for a guy that was going to try and start a relationship on the island. He said play that angle, and you should be okay. I had zero interest in having any sort of relationship on television… but I played an aggressive lothario that was on a constant conquest for the next woman. It worked all the way through casting; all the way to Les Moonves looking at me with a wry smile and finishing a couple of my sentences about scoring on the island to impress my buddies. Who was I to correct him?

GRETCHEN: One-by-one, we were taken out for a pre-interview, which meant standing in the hall while someone asked questions to narrow down your essence before you were taken to the taped interview. I was asked questions like, “If you found out the person you were sleeping next to was a lesbian, what would you do?” The nature of the questions quickly had me coming to the realization that this was no Eco-Challenge. I was pissed… mainly at myself for using family resources only to find that this seemed like it was going to be a whole lot more like a soap-opera than a survival show. I felt they had sold it as something other than what it was.

SPILLMAN: Mark gave us direction for what types of people he wanted us to cast. Mark would come into the office daily (and not because it was also the kitchen) to check on the progress. We showed him videos often. It was his idea that people would send in tapes, the press, using the affiliates to help us out—all his idea! 

GRETCHEN: By the time my name was called for the taped interview, my nervousness had been replaced with a cavalier attitude. To be honest, that was probably the reason I got chosen to move on. I really didn’t care at that point whether they picked me or not and answered the questions a whole lot sassier than I would have without the pre-interview. I went home NOT expecting to ever hear from them again, and the next thing you know, I’m being flown out to LA for the next step.

Lynne and her team whittled the field of applicants down to the best forty-eight, before bringing them to Los Angeles for further interviews and meetings with Burnett and the CBS top brass.

GERVASE: They put the forty-eight finalists up in [a hotel] and sequestered us the whole time. You were confined to your room except for interviews and physicals, which there were a lot of.

RAMONA: I remember that the final fifty were flown out to LA for several rounds of interviews with CBS personnel, meeting with a psychologist, personality tests, etc. During this entire time, although we saw each other, we were not allowed to communicate at all. One person was sent home for defying this order.

SEAN: To outsiders, it must have seemed like a bizarre convention of loners. We could not socialize with anyone or leave the premises. [We were] put through several rounds of interviews with executives, producers, and some interesting “tests.” They presented you with situations, and you were filmed as you reacted. 

JOEL: There were countless in-person interviews that went on for some time. Producers, directors, casting agents, doctors, network executives… finally, the president of the network personally interviewed and approved the last group. This was the first glimpse that nobody really knew what they were doing, but they tried really hard to act like they did.

GRETCHEN: We were interviewed in a hotel room they had set up like an office. I remember being sick as a dog and not thinking very fast on my feet. As I would eat alone in the dining room of the hotel, I would notice the other people who were alone. I tried to size up the competition. We were originally told we would be there a few days, but those few days were extended because Les Moonves wanted to meet with all of us individually. He decided to attend the Super Bowl, so we had to stay over the weekend waiting on him to return.

Borneo Cast
Photo: CBS

GERVASE: The last test was an individual interview with Les Moonves, Mark Burnett, Craig Piligian (co-executive producer), Nancy Tellem (CBS Entertainment President), and more. They asked you questions, and this was your last chance to impress them to make the show.

SPILLMAN: I wasn’t thinking that any one person was going to stand out as a “star.” I was just thinking, ‘God, I hope this show and the cast delivers.’

As casting continued, there was a growing concern surrounding the negative effects the show could have on a participant’s mental health. This led to CBS bringing on board a psychologist to evaluate the applicants.

DR. GENE ONDRUSEK (show psychologist): I was a panelist on an NPR radio program discussing thrill-seeking behavior and stress. Mark Burnett was also a member. He mentioned a new concept he had purchased from a Swedish television production called Expedition Robinson. It was pointed out that, in that particular series, a cast member who got voted off ended up committing suicide, so there needed to be a way to address risk management. So, CBS followed up with me, forwarded me the show concept, and asked if I could provide a proposal as to how to deal with this.

Ondrusek’s proposal was given the green-light by CBS, and he was asked to come to Los Angeles to assess the potential castaways.

ONDRUSEK: An associate and I interviewed and tested about forty-to-fifty finalists. Once I had grasped the idea of the production, I added a battery of psych assessment instruments to both screen out potentially risky personalities, as well as screening in a mixture of personality characteristics that would make for interesting interactions (i.e., placing two individuals with very high needs for control/dominance in the same tribe, making for compelling conflict as they vied for control, etc.). That was a two week, around the clock process, where we added input to a whole lot of casting meetings to cull the group into the final sixteen contestants.

GERVASE: After that, they flew everyone home, and two days later, I got the call that I made the show. They told me “congratulations,” and I had four weeks to prepare and get my personal business in order before we left for Malaysia.

Located off the western coast of Sabah, Malaysia and just twenty miles from Borneo lays the tropical-rain-forest island of Pulau Tiga. Burnett had first seen the island in a National Geographic documentary and was drawn to its dense jungle, sandy beaches, and exotic wildlife. It was as beautiful as it was foreboding—the ideal Robinson Crusoe-type setting to strand a bunch of Americans. 

GRETCHEN: We all flew into LA a couple of days before leaving for Malaysia. They took press photos, handed out the Reebok gear [editor’s note: Reebok was one of the show’s sponsors], and gave us strict instructions about following the rules, not talking to each other, and how we could all be replaced at any moment. I think we all thought [this] was BS, but we pretty much did what we were told. 

GERVASE: We were still sequestered during all that time. We weren’t allowed to speak to the other contestants or anyone else. 

JOEL: We had been watching each other during the casting process but were not allowed to communicate in any way. A bus came to pick us up [from the hotel], and we all saw who made the final group.

On March 8, 2000, the chosen castaways boarded a flight from LAX to the Bornean city of Kota Kinabalu.

GERVASE: Flying over to Borneo, I just tried to pay attention to everything, trying to get a read on the other Survivors, making a plan of how to play the game and a backup plan for when that didn’t work. 

GRETCHEN: Mark had told us that we could assume whatever identity we wanted for the show. If you didn’t want to tell someone what you did for a living or how much you made, that was all part of the game. I don’t know if Sean had intended to do that, but somewhere over the Pacific, one of the passengers on the plane was having problems, and they asked if there was a doctor on board, and Sean stood up. Cover blown! 

SEAN: Now, remember, I was a contestant on a new TV show, and the executives were adamant about not revealing any details about ourselves. When I heard the steward over the loudspeaker ask, “Is there any doctor on board the flight? We have a sick passenger,” I honestly thought it might be another “test” by the producers, and if I stood up, they would disqualify me. But then I thought, well, what if it is real and there were no other doctors on the plane? I figured, I’m a doctor first, and a contestant second. So I stood up and took care of the patient. That, “Is there a doctor on board?” is more common than you would think. It’s happened to me three times, and I don’t fly often.

JOEL: I went to the bathroom, and Richard [Hatch] was sleeping on the floor of the plane, in the exit row. I have been flying a long time and never seen anyone do that. After a short time, a flight attendant asked him to return to his seat. But I learn more about people by what they do and not what they say. Rich doesn’t give a f**k! But he can be charming.

GRETCHEN: When we arrived at the hotel [in Kota Kinabalu], I was blown away. It was amazing. We were met with native dancers and drinks. The brunch they served each day went on for miles. Knowing I wasn’t going to be eating well for the next however long, I made up for future lost time. 

GERVASE: When we got to Borneo, it was just amazing. I was on the other side of the world about to do something that I’ve never done before.

RAMONA: You have to remember that during this entire time, we STILL were not allowed to talk to each other, so it was really weird to be sharing the experience without really sharing it. 

GRETCHEN: While at the hotel, we had meetings where they went through everyone’s medications and hygiene items… and gave final approval to your luxury item. I was allowed to take toothpaste, toothbrush, and dental floss. I had chosen that specifically for the floss, which I knew could be used for repairs, fishing line, and a thousand other things. B.B. [Anderson] had a belt woven from one continuous piece of leather, a pair of glasses that were ground like magnifying glasses, and other items that appeared normal but could have been extremely useful, and he managed to get them past the inspection.

JOEL: We spent time learning about the area with experts. The first season was legit dangerous—seriously poisonous animals, insects, and plants were in the region. Borneo is remarkably hostile.

GRETCHEN: This was a first real introduction to Jeff Probst, who laid out some of the rules of the game. I thought he was very natural and well-spoken. 

GERVASE: The producers never told us much [about the game]. They only gave us a little bit of information. All I knew was that it was sixteen contestants competing in challenges, and every three days, you vote someone out.

GRETCHEN: We were taken aside one-by-one to film a short introduction piece. You were supposed to give your name and say, “I WILL be the Sole Survivor” or something similar. I remember having such a hard time with that. It seemed braggy, and who was I to say I was going to win? In retrospect, that should have been a big clue to how I would fare in the game. 

With the castaways prepped, it was time to begin filming, starting in a small, Malaysian fishing village, where the cast boarded a boat and set sail for the island of Pulau Tiga. 

GRETCHEN: I remember the inhabitants [of the village] staring at us, and I thought how strange we must look to them. All the cameras and fanfare, for what? I wondered what the village was told before we arrived and if they had been paid for this interruption of their lives. 

GERVASE: Walking through the fishing village was very cool and different. People lived like this every day, which was nothing like how I was living at home. I just wanted to soak up the smells, the sounds, and everything, because it was all new to me. 

GRETCHEN: It was also the first time they were filming us en masse, and I instantly became hyper-aware of every movement I made. I wanted to disappear. I found out afterward just how many contestants loved it, and that was surreal. From that moment, every word that came out of my mouth was weighed on the scale of how it would be perceived when aired. It was stifling for me. 

RAMONA: I just remember feeling excited about the adventure, nervous that I had no idea what I was getting into, and grateful to have the opportunity.

GERVASE: I was never scared or nervous. I was excited and pumped. 

SEAN: I remember the process being fun, not scary… exciting. 

GRETCHEN: I would hear Mark say to people that almost immediately, the contestants became oblivious to the fact that they were being filmed. Perhaps the others, but not this girl. I was constantly thinking about my children and the kids from the pre-school I worked at, the SERE instructors who knew all the proper principles of survival, and what would they think? It was an albatross I couldn’t shake. 

RAMONA: We were mic’d, our structure was mic’d, and cameramen were ever-present. It took less time than I thought to get used to them, and once we did, they just became a part of the landscape. Our mic packs became a part of our wardrobe, and they were pretty robust, so they were easy to tolerate—no complaints there.

The cast was divided into two tribes, Pagong and Tagi, and “marooned” a few miles from the island they’d soon call home. The game had officially begun, but “the game” meant different things for different people.

GRETCHEN: Going through SERE instructor training can be brutal. There is often a fifty percent attrition rate per class. You work hard, work as a team, and people who realize the career field is not for them or who can’t keep up are gone. From the moment I hit the sand, I was back in that mode. The concept of “game” became lost to me.

SEAN: I was not willing to be the “bad guy.” I’m still not willing. I live by the adage, “It’s always the right time to do the right thing.” My father taught me that. I do this even when it’s hard, even when it’s on a reality show. That may sound naïve, but that’s how I live. I played the game the way I wanted. 

GERVASE: I had a plan of how I wanted to play the game. I knew my strengths and my weaknesses, but I also knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I was willing to do whatever I had to do to win this game. On the boat ride to the island, I made a deal with Ramona to never vote for her if she did the same for me. When we hit the beach, I made the same deal with Joel. 

JOEL: I deduced quickly that the challenges were almost a distraction, and it was about sheer numbers. I tried every angle I could to convince Pagong that if we didn’t stick together after the merge, we would run into a “buzzsaw.” This was cemented for me when Tagi voted out Dirk [Been] and kept Rudy [Boesch]. But I could not convince Gretchen that Jenna [Lewis] would turn on Pagong members after the merge and that we needed to form a voting group. 

Pagong
Photo: CBS

RAMONA: My naïve expectations were only to go out and have fun. Seriously, I didn’t have a plan beyond trying to make myself indispensable. We saw how well that worked out! 

GERVASE: Our first Tribal Council, we decided to write Jeff’s name down. That didn’t go over well. We were a young tribe and didn’t take things too seriously. We were having a great time on that island. That all changed once you saw people getting voted off.

GRETCHEN: When we voted out B.B., I felt like vomiting. He had orchestrated the vote. He wanted to go. He had money and came only for the adventure. The game turned into a battle he didn’t want to be a part of anymore, and yet writing down his name was excruciating for me. With each vote, someone’s dream ended.

JOEL: My pushing for a voting bloc was met with Jenna, Gretchen, and Colleen [Haskell] thinking I was mean spirited. Greg [Buis] thought it sounded boring. They were young kids with very little business or life experience and just wanted to wing it.

GRETCHEN: I have often thought, in retrospect, that had I been on the second season, I would have had an entirely different mindset. Everyone would know what was coming—that all the things that weren’t fair and hurtful in “real life” were allowed. Lying to someone’s face was acceptable. Ganging up on the odd man out was just part of the game. Of course, I will never know if that’s true.

While the Pagong tribe took a more cavalier approach to the voting process, soaking up the adventure instead of Machiavellian plots, over on the Tagi tribe, an alliance was forming.

JOEL: I believe Richard coined [the term] “alliance.” Rich went a bit further and started killing his own people. He surrounded himself with people he thought he could control and eventually beat. That is why he teamed up with Kelly [Wiglesworth], Sue [Hawk], and Rudy, and kept Sean in the dark. 

SEAN: The “alphabet strategy” [editor’s note: Sean voted for people in alphabetical order] was a real strategy and, I thought, a politically innocuous one. Despite how it seemed, I tried to win. My Tagi tribe, aka “the alliance,” Rich, Rudy, Sue, and Kelly, all came at the back of the alphabet, while the opposing tribe, Jenna, Gervase, Colleen, Gretchen, and Greg, all came at the beginning. The strategy would position me to be the last person standing against the alliance, which is what happened. Then I just had to beat the members of the alliance one-by-one, which obviously did not happen.

GRETCHEN: Rich said multiple times, “I’m not here to make friends,” and I suppose that’s what it takes. Would I be able to keep my eye on the prize and do what it takes to win? I think yes, given a second chance, but in reality, I was raised to play fair, be a good girl, give 110, and take a punch over give one. 

SEAN: I won the first family visit ever. I got to share a part of the show with my dad, on a yacht in the middle of the South China Sea. And I got to share my dad with millions of Americans. I cannot tell you how much that meant to me and to my dad. If I could rewind time and win the one million prize but lose that special moment with my dad, I wouldn’t do it. That moment was worth far more than money to me.

GERVASE: I was trying to find something in common with every one of my tribemates to bond with [them]. The problem was, no matter how good your plan was, something happened every day to ruin it. I learned really fast you have to be able to adapt and change and go where things lead you if you wanted to stay long on that island. 

JOEL: For my forceful, arrogant, naïve efforts of pushing an alliance, the non-alliance believers formed an alliance and voted me out! The rest of Pagong is history. Bottom line—strategy was a dirty word in the Pagong tribe.

The Pagong tribe received a rude awakening at the first merge vote when Gretchen fell victim to the dreaded Tagi voting bloc. Gretchen was a frontrunner to win the whole competition, a pre-school teacher and former survival instructor for the U.S. Air Force, she was a favorite among castaways and viewers alike.

GRETCHEN: The night I got the boot, I was led to a tent and given some of my clothes from the resort and left alone for the night. I needed to process it all, so I spent the night walking the beach. I came across some armed security and then noticed something in the jungle. I walked closer, trying to make out what it was. It turned out to be large pieces of what I think was Styrofoam. It was the backside of the Tribal Council set. Boom! It had all been so real life to me, and here it was, just a game. It seems ridiculous, I know, but that was the moment I got it. As they say, “a day late and a dollar short.”

Not knowing how castaways would react to being rejected by their island peers, Dr. Ondrusek was flown to Borneo to provide de-briefing and potential psych support for the voted off contestants.

ONDRUSEK: When a contestant made the walk down the dark jungle path, I was at the end of that path and de-briefed each one. Since I had developed a rapport with each person during casting, they were expecting this. This process ranged from a couple hours to perhaps overnight. I then accompanied them back to the production base in Kota Kinabalu to a four-star resort on the mainland, about thirty miles from the actual island. So, I stayed in a fancy resort with scented candles and turn-down service for two days, then made the trek to the island for the voting ceremony, finding a tent or temp housing set up in the jungle.  

Survivor taking a turn into strategic deception was not just a shock for the castaways and viewers at home, but some members of the crew too.

BALTAZZI: The forming of alliances was something I had not anticipated happening. However, when that turn occurred, I thought it made for unexpected and compelling storytelling. In my mind, it was this turn that made Survivor become a social experiment.

ONDRUSEK: All I had as a baseline was interacting with the Swedish psychologist and how their production went, which was much more of a cooperative dynamic, where the “good guy” prevailed. Everyone was happy to see that person take home the million-dollar prize. Well, the American version, as you saw, reflected much more about our culture than theirs! 

PARSONS: I was delighted about the plotting and scheming. It was exactly how we designed the show. Richard Hatch was the perfect contestant. We wanted a hero who was also villainous. Any of the contestants could have been this combination, but he was the winner!

ONDRUSEK: Looking back at the psych profiles, it was clear that there were personalities much more given to manipulation and competitiveness [than the Swedish version]. Richard was the poster boy for the above—the master strategist, who realized during the process the best way to come out ahead, and it wasn’t by playing nice. He probably set the tone for future seasons, although I still wonder if he hadn’t set that standard, would the whole tenor of the show look different? But I think that’s what has given Survivor legs. Who wants to see people all getting along and being nice to each other? Conflict is what drives ALL drama, regardless of the medium.

Nobody knew how the show would turn out or how the game would develop. It was all a learning curve, and not just in the structure of the game, but in the production process itself, which came with its own set of hardships.

GRETCHEN: Once the show started filming, it seemed like we were all in a free fall of a game. 

GERVASE: The cast and crew were figuring things out as we went along. 

BALTAZZI: We were definitely learning on the job how to produce Survivor. We started with a general framework for the show. However, a show like this had never been done before. 

OWENS: I think at the pointy end, the show was very well-researched, well-conceived, and well-resourced. On the ground, it became very evident that there were some highly motivated, skilled people involved, but there were also some glaring gaps in the system.

HOLLISTER: I don’t think the production crew was ready for something like this. And they were really pushing to shoot everything on a schedule, this was not something where you could say, “Okay, we didn’t get this today, let’s hit it tomorrow,” it had to be hit that day.

GERVASE: One of the things that didn’t work was giving us luxury items for rewards. They were great, but we wanted food. We would compete harder in a challenge for food than for a pillow, and production realized that.

BALTAZZI: It was exciting and took a lot of incredibly long days, figuring out the challenges, and how we wanted to tell our stories. I always felt that the time to be part of Survivor was at the beginning when we did not know what it was going to be, or how the audience would react to it. There was something magical about the unknown.

OWENS: Craig’s [Piligian] experience being highly successful ‘camera in a cop car’-type shows, and Mark’s experience of filming ‘solo runner in the Andes Mountains’ (not to belittle the complexity of the logistics for those shows), made them highly organized in terms of camera, crew, sound guys, locations, remote edit suites, water-based camera gear, miniature equipment, etc. The show was all over it in those terms. However, I don’t believe either of them had ever run an art department—and it showed.

PARSONS: I went to Borneo during filming. Rightly, they followed to the letter our production bible, which had now been enhanced from our experiences in Scandinavia. By this time, there were more countries making [the show], and we could add things we had learned to our production process. 

ONDRUSEK: I had never been on the scene for any kind of television production, so I didn’t have much of a baseline to compare it to. As I went on to do other reality shows, I came to appreciate that it appears quite chaotic during the production but was always amazed at the finished product. The creativity and magic in reality shows occur during post-production editing, as those folks know how to find/create interesting vignettes out of hours of footage.   

GRETCHEN: On the day we were to have our first Tribal Council, we were instructed to wait until dusk and start the trek to the Council site. We had to skirt the island instead of walking through the middle. It turned dark quickly, and we were left climbing over slippery rocks as the tide came in. The production crew was literally walking backwards ahead of us, trying to film. They were slipping between rocks and sacrificing themselves to save the equipment. B.B. fell and luckily wasn’t hurt, but the whole tribe decided at that point we would refuse to do that again. 

GERVASE: It was an hour walk one way to get our water. We would walk there, fill our canteens with water, and drink half of them walking back. [The crew] realized the water had to be closer. You didn’t want to walk an hour at night to get water either. 

ONDRUSEK: Everything on the island wanted to kill you… [we] shared it with sketchy insects and plants, monkeys throwing things from the trees, six-foot monitor lizards roaming outside your tent looking for leftovers. It was very hot and humid. And the island was a well-known smugglers’ hand-off point, so we had security from Australian Special Forces constantly patrolling the island to keep everyone safe. Once a storm capsized our boat when attempting to cross to the mainland, and we had to swim back to shore! 

HOLLISTER: [One time], two storms were coming in from opposite directions. One of the producers grabbed the boat that was leaving to pick up me and a crew of art department that was out on the sandspit prepping for a challenge the next day and told them not to come get us but go to a different beach and grab some cameras and bring them back to our main production offices. So we were just left out there. The storm came in, the sandspit got progressively more overcome, waves started going over the top of it. We all huddled under a tarp, holding tools above our heads, much of the set was washed away. When they eventually got a boat out to us, there was no sandspit left, and we were at least up to our knees in water. That was pretty scary.

RAMONA: I’m super competitive in my real life. I excel at most things I try, but I wasn’t prepared for the conditions. I could do physical challenges all day, but out there, if you don’t hydrate, you’re done! Period. 

Borneo Final Challenge
Photo: CBS

JOEL: [The crew] had a bunch of hi-end ideas about what would work. Infrared technology was the main one that just didn’t work out. They resorted to very basic, Best Buy-level camcorders with night vision. 

BALTAZZI: We had to bring in everything for production, which took quite a bit of forethought and coordination. Since the show had never been done before, some things worked out, others did not. And then, there were the things you could not have anticipated prepping for sitting in an office in Los Angeles, having never shot a show in the middle of the South China Sea. All said, despite the challenges, what we pulled off with only around eighty people was monumental. I feel that credit goes to Mark Burnett, Craig Piligian, and Scott Messick [supervising producer]. 

HOLLISTER: We used to get wood delivered by boat; they’d push it off the boat, and it’d just float in. We had a delivery once, and all the wood we bought was freshly lumbered hardwood, this order came from an ironwood tree, which is heavier than water, so when it was pushed off the boat, it fell to the bottom of the South China Sea. So the art department guys had to gear up in their scuba gear and go wrangle our lumber off the bottom of the ocean floor. It set us back a good day, but I think it was everybody’s favorite delivery of materials, probably ever on any job (laughs).

OWENS: I had expressed my disquiet at using petrol in the tiki torches and them being made out of dry coconut shells. For Tribal Council, a fire pit had been built, a gas flame rig was also brought, but the two had never been tested or fitted. The fire pit was a polystyrene and urethane hard coat item—highly flammable. The gas flame rig was too big for the job required and sat too low in the pit. The truss [lighting framework] stage had been covered in plastic sheets and plastic vines. The gasoline-filled tiki torches were leaking fuel all over the wooden stage floor. There were no fire extinguishers, no fire pumps, and no hoses. As the last tweaks were being put in place on the dress rehearsal night… I suggested we were only a hundred meters from the beach and endless water. A few pumps, some Layflat hose, and a few nozzles would be enough, along with some fire extinguishers, get rid of the gasoline in favor of the normal lamp oil, and get a qualified gas man to check the plumbing—all of which arrived the very next day.

SEAN: It seemed like a well-oiled machine to me back then. Mark comes from a military background, and he took that military discipline to TV production. 

JOEL: The crew was not “reality TV” guys—there was no such thing. They were film and National Geographic-type guys who thought the show was a joke. 

GRETCHEN: The crew was great to us, and at times, seemed part of the tribe. They worked hard and were under a lot of pressure. On more than one occasion, I heard them being berated for not caring for the equipment well enough and for not getting footage of something that might have been good for the show. There was even a point where they were eating less than us. We were told we would have an unlimited amount of rice and so we would cook extra and feed the crew. Turns out the definition of “unlimited” meant what you have is what you get. 

BALTAZZI: Food was also challenging to source for the production staff and crew. I recall a lot of not great meals. When I came back from Borneo, I was so skinny that my skin hung around my collar bones, and you could see my hip bones as well. That said, it was a fantastic experience that I am so appreciative to have had.

HOLLISTER: The set up [for the crew] was great. We had our own private beach. The diner was an eco-resort with a full kitchen and games room. It was nice. The locals really did a great job.

BALTAZZI: There was a full kitchen, however, the food itself was challenging to source. That was the situation, not a lack of care or concern about feeding the production team.

HOLLISTER: We had little cabins; they were prefabs designed in Australia, I believe, then shipped over and the locals put them together. They were great, but there was no hot water. But all the plumbing was done on the surface through the jungle, so if you could sneak off set in the middle of the day, you could get home and have a hot shower from all the heated water that was sitting in the pipes. And it was pretty special after not having that for a while (laughs).

ONDRUSEK: These crews came from two backgrounds: one was Mark’s cameramen from his extreme athlete shows, accustomed to at least the environment, but still very different from just getting footage of a bunch of folks hanging out on an island. The other was a crew from the Real World, accustomed to just filming people being people, but hardly their typical cushy digs from the Real World environment. As film crews rotated back and forth to the mainland, and I hung out with them, I could sense a growing morale issue.  

OWENS: Some people were together enough to handle themselves; some were not. Some behaved like it was spring break and were not very mature. Like the contestants, there were allegiances, pacts, and cliques amongst the crew. Most people took their jobs seriously and worked very hard to do the best with what we had and enjoyed themselves. Some others did not enjoy being there, some hated the accommodation, or the mosquitos, or the isolation. Some hated the food. Craig even flew a chopper full of McDonald’s over one day to cheer up some of the sad sacks! 

ONDRUSEK: It was decided that to help [the crew] understand what the vision was for this show, the production crew would cobble together footage that was ultimately going to be the first episode aired. It was sort of a “premiere night” with popcorn, etc., and everyone got a look at how this was all going to come together. After that, it was more of an, “Oh yeah, I see what we are up to! This is gonna be… cool!”

BALTAZZI: There was a lot of camaraderie between the producers. We worked long, grueling hours. We produced stories on the beaches about camp life. We tested many of the challenges before they were played. We went to every Tribal Council. We were editing the first few episodes on location. However, while we worked hard, we also laughed a lot. Every third night, when Tribal ended, we sighed a collective relief and celebrated having another episode in the can. The team was very close. Mark and Jeff were very present, as well.

There was also the question of how the crew would handle the castaways in terms of interaction and dealing with any potentially unruly behavior. 

ONDRUSEK: I was always sort of “on-call” if any [contestant] seemed to be losing it or in need. I never had direct contact during the shoot, although I was usually in the vicinity when I was there while filming was going on. I depended on the production crew to alert me if anything ever arose, but everyone seemed pretty intact during the whole process—perhaps a tribute to our extensive screening process.  

SEAN: It was odd, standing around and talking to the other contestants with a camera in your face and with producers and sound engineers nearby. We were initially told to treat the crew like trees—ignore them. At first, it seemed artificial and weird. We were assured that we would get used to it. After a few days, that was true. When I wanted to have a private conversation with one of the other contestants, it felt private, despite there being a producer, cameraman, and sound engineer filming the whole interaction. 

GRETCHEN: At one point, we discovered [the crew] had hidden microphones in the thatching of the hut, and those got cut up with a machete. Another time, they set up a time-lapse camera to film us moving the shelter into the woods, and every so often, Greg would strip down and stand in front of it, so when it was played back, you would see naked Greg quickly in the video. I don’t believe any of the antics were aimed at the crew or even Mark. It was just done in fun; however, I can see where it would become frustrating. 

HOLLISTER: [The castaways] were really good to work with. They were there to survive on an island and be filmed surviving as castaways, they did not think they were there to play games and be goofy and have romances and have drama. They didn’t know that, because it hadn’t been done before. I think Greg and some of the others wanted to do it for real. He thought it was going to be the real deal. So he might have been a little grumpy, and I thought he did a great job holding in his frustration that we were making a joke about it. I think all of them—for the most part—were a little surprised when it turned into a game show.

GRETCHEN: Greg was young at the time, but he is brilliant, and I don’t just throw that word around. He had an incredible knack for messing with people and enjoyed doing it, I think. He would get a call on his “coconut phone” and have to take it no matter where Jeff was in his line of questioning. The show wouldn’t have been the same without him, and I think any disruption he may have caused was well worth the price.

Greg
Photo: CBS

GERVASE: We weren’t allowed to talk to the crew, and they weren’t allowed to talk to us. Of course, we tried to have conversations with them. I would pay attention to the cards they carried because they had information on all the contestants. We would offer them bowls of rice to eat with us, [thinking] if we were cool with the crew, they might give us information. 

BALTAZZI: The seasons I was doing the show, there was no chatting with the contestants or eating/drinking around them. The producers and camera crews were to be as unobtrusive as possible. Our interaction was observational—observing them on the beach and interviewing them about what was happening. Because of FCC regulations, we could not do anything that would interfere with their game. We were flies on the wall, there only to document. If they broke something or lost something, they were not getting it replaced by production. 

JOEL: They didn’t take the commands of “hands-off with the cast” seriously. But I don’t blame Mark for anything he did to keep the show together. He was trying to keep us participating. 

OWENS: I was amazed that none of [the contestants] ever tried to bribe/coerce/cheat food from the crew; after all, there were plenty of us everyday skirting around the edge of them. I think now the crew is kept much more remote from the contestants, but we were not far from them ever. We were not supposed to interact, but people did all day long.

GRETCHEN: Mark had a lot riding on the show. I admire him for his tenacity and for how he tried to keep everything on track. Trying to film a show under those conditions, while attempting to adhere to the FCC rules, is a task not for the faint of heart. I thought there were instances where some production decisions influenced the game. But to his credit, Mark would listen to criticism and try to adjust while keeping the game as legit as possible, given all the variables. 

The turnaround between the end of filming and the premiere date was just over a month. Television promos had started airing on CBS promising the “wildest show in television history.” Howard Stern was hyping it up on his radio show. TV critics across America were sharpening their machetes. There was a gut-churning mix of excitement and apprehension. 

On Wednesday, May 31, 2000, CBS would air the first episode of Survivor—it was time to sink or swim.

BALTAZZI: As producers, we did feel like we were creating something unique. We had no idea that it would become the sensation that it did.

JOEL: Going into the show, my expectations were very low. We didn’t even know if the show would finish shooting or what it would look like. Mark was the main reason for the show’s success. Once the grub eating challenge happened, I figured it would be a success. I had never seen anything like this before… but had no idea the level it would reach.  

OWENS: In a word, “no,” I did not expect it to be a hit, I thought it would be a flash in the pan. I had not worked on a show of this type previously, not even a quiz or game show, so I came from a different set of experiences. I thought the idea for the show was mildly interesting but a little silly and frivolous. So, I can’t really claim to have been that heavily invested in its intellectual side, its popularity, its outcome, or its longevity at the time. Later, I saw how engaging it actually was.

PARSONS: I absolutely did know it was going to become huge. I didn’t perhaps realize it would have forty seasons in the US. In the original pitch document, there was a whole section about the reaction, including a mocked-up Time magazine cover recounting the phenomenon. Everything we wrote came true. 

Time Magazine
Cover Credit: Gregory Heisler/Time Magazine

ONDRUSEK: I think the clue that we were doing something groundbreaking came to me when, on a trip to the island one day, we had a passenger, who turned out to be a reporter from TV Guide. He had gotten wind that something was brewing on the other side of the world that would likely make a huge impact on a whole new category of the typical TV productions. And they sent him halfway around the world to suss it out! 

SPILLMAN: The entire show was a huge surprise to me. I didn’t have all of the information about the show. I didn’t even know they were doing challenges that were on the scale that they were. I was thinking more “campy” not jaw-droppingly beautiful and well-constructed as it turned out to be when I watched the show months later. 

Viewers soon became engrossed in the exciting challenges and the personalities and relationships of the castaways, from Richard’s scheming to Rudy’s curmudgeonly quips to Greg’s kookiness and Gretchen’s efficiency for island living. By its third episode, Survivor was the most-watched show in America—leaping above ER, Friends, and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

GRETCHEN: I never expected anyone but friends and family would watch the show! I was petrified to watch the first episode. I heard that some of the other contestants were throwing viewing parties, but for me, it was family only. After watching the show, I had real respect for the editors. I can’t imagine having all that raw footage and making an episode out of it. I thought it was interesting and beautifully shot at the same time. 

SEAN: Survivor spawned mainstream reality TV, but it also catapulted CBS out of the Angela Lansbury era. I had tremendous faith in Mark and the crew. But as I watched Richard walk around naked, day after day, I thought the show would require some amazing editing to even be interesting! 

SPILLMAN: I actually cried after watching the first episode. I remember calling Mark and telling him how beautiful it was and how proud I was to be part of it. I even said something like, “I don’t know how the ratings will be tomorrow, but it was the most beautiful hour of television I’ve ever seen.”

PARSONS: I was obviously delighted [with the show’s success]. But it was weird as at that time I wasn’t living in the US, so I was watching the phenomenon from a distance, rather than enjoying the adulation I was hoping for. I remember watching a report on the BBC News and only realizing halfway through that this was about MY show. And the report didn’t mention it was created over here [in the UK], by me, implying it was generated in America. That was painful!

ONDRUSEK: At the time, sitcoms, dramas, [scripted] series, made up the bulk of what people saw on TV. Since then, you can see just how pervasive unscripted productions have become, and it’s hard to imagine a time when networks weren’t dominated by this format. So, yeah, riding that wave and being a part of it kind of became my “opus” in terms of making a mark in the field of psychology. Now, psych screenings and background checks are the norm for all of these types of shows.

GRETCHEN: After the second or third episode, I was shopping with my daughter, who was eight [at the time], and I kept noticing the same woman. It didn’t matter what department I was in, there she was. I started getting creeped out and finally turned and looked her in the eye. She said, “Are you that girl from Survivor?” BAM! It never occurred to me that people would react that way. That was the beginning.

SEAN: After I got voted off the island, I saw a recently edited promotional spot for the show. At that point, I knew Survivor was going to be much bigger than I could imagine. The show intro was so compelling and expertly edited.

Speaking of the show’s intro, even Survivor’s now-iconic theme song, “Ancient Voices,” became a hit, sparking the release of an official soundtrack CD. 

RUSS LANDAU (composer): I wrote the seed for [the Survivor theme song] many years before as a submission for a Paul Winter Consort record I was co-producing, incorporating ancient Russian folk songs we recorded. I dusted it off and began working on it for Mark after he told me about his concept for the show. I imagined this mashup of Lord of the Flies meets MTV’s Real World. It seemed a perfect fit. [Mark] kept asking for big, bigger, BIGGEST. However, [the crew] all went nuts when they heard “Ancient Voices” for the first time. It was completely different from anything they had imagined, but it was immediately chosen for the series. 

The theme song, the castaways, the challenges, the island location, everything about the show gripped the nation. And as the viewership continued to rise, so too did the fanfare and publicity. 

GRETCHEN: People started calling the house at all hours. A radio station offered my son a free bike if he told them the date I got back [from filming]—we were allowed to return home after we got the boot. We couldn’t eat out anymore. I went grocery shopping at the commissary, and they made an announcement over the loudspeaker that I was there, and I signed autographs for two hours while my ice-cream melted and meat got warm. I never wanted to say no to anyone. I didn’t want to be “that person.”

GERVASE: I thought the biggest thing would be I would go out to eat and get recognized and get my dinner for free. Like, how cool would that be?! It was way beyond that. 

RAMONA: Unlike other contestants, I wanted to be on the show purely for the adventure. My plan was always to go [back] to my regular life/job afterwards. It was surreal gaining notoriety, getting fan mail from all over the world, having people recognize me, going on talk/game shows, etc. But I took it all in stride because I knew the five minutes of fame wouldn’t last forever.

GRETCHEN: At one point, it started to really take a toll on my family. I think most people have wished to be famous, including myself; however, it’s not for everyone, and it wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong, some wonderful experiences came along with it, and for that I am grateful. I got to travel and raise money for charities and make money for my family. I’m glad I got to experience it all but to be a Taylor Swift or a Scarlett Johansson? No thanks! Just something simple like being misquoted or a statement being taken out of context was maddening. I truly don’t know how celebrities do it year after year.

Sue
Photo: CBS

GERVASE: It was the most incredible experience being on that island and playing the game of Survivor. That was the work. The reward was the fame after the show was over. It was amazing. Going to the award shows, the parties, the charity events, appearances, speaking engagements. Doing TV shows, modeling, commercials, video games, trading cards, radio, you name it, we did it. The best part was all the love from fans all over the world. They helped make this show a huge success by watching every week. 

ONDRUSEK: Some folks had some sponsorship deals, I believe one contestant even got a part in an Adam Sandler movie? [editor’s note: Colleen Haskell starred alongside Rob Schneider in The Animal, which was co-produced by Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions]

JOEL: For a good year, it was just us from the first season running around Hollywood and NYC. We all made some pretty good connections and had the time of our lives. This was pre-9/11, so the world was not as serious. We were a fun escape, and the opportunities that opened up were too many to properly pursue.

When it came to the finale, an astonishing 51.7 million people tuned in to watch Sue Hawk deliver her infamous “snakes and rats” speech before Richard Hatch beat Kelly Wiglesworth for the one million dollar prize. It was the second-most-watched TV broadcast of the year behind only the Super Bowl.

Survivor was no longer just a surprise summer hit; it was a bonafide landmark television event.

BALTAZZI: One memory that stands out for me was having all the footage for the first Tribal Council finale, when Richard Hatch won, at my home, so I could screen as I put together an edit plan for that episode. At the time, I had America’s most wanted secret in my living room. [It’s] wild to think about that now.

ONDRUSEK: Part of my obligations was to follow up with everyone periodically… as we all sort of dealt with life back in the States. Remember, about a hundred-and-fifty people had to keep this secret for months, so as not to spoil the ending, and no one ever spilled the beans! A tribute to how everyone became a team, from participants to crew. 

GRETCHEN: When I was on the show and watched how some people, Sue, in particular, conducted themselves, I would anticipate how people would react after the show had aired. I thought the people who came off as brutal or rude would be ostracized and judged by their actions. I can’t tell you how blown away I was when we would appear at a charity event or CBS function, and people would yell out [Sue’s] name and want her autograph above Kelly’s. It started to become clear that people thought of us as “characters” on a show and not real people. I sat next to Kelly while we watched the last episode in the viewing room on the night of the finale, and, I can tell you, the pain was real.  

BALTAZZI: When the first Survivor finale aired, I was working on another one of Mark’s shows, Eco-Challenge. I was, once again, deep in the Borneo jungle. This time at an adventure race check-point when I heard about the country’s reaction to Richard Hatch winning. It was a surreal moment. To be so far away from the States and learning that everyone was going crazy over the show. Those were the days when Survivor was literally getting Super Bowl ratings.

SPILLMAN: I was thrilled and shocked after season one at the massive cultural phenomenon it became. It was really reflected in season two when we had over seventy thousand people apply to be on the show. 

Survivor’s success set off a reality TV boom in the US, spawning countless imitations and would-be successors. However, Survivor has outlasted all the competition, and twenty years later, remains one of CBS’s top-rated shows as it recently celebrated its fortieth season.

PARSONS: I knew it was a game-changer, but I could never have anticipated it would last that long. Survivor is about heroes, it’s a testament to the human spirit, what we can do, and what our flaws are. Everyone can identify with it—they can see themselves there. 

GRETCHEN: I remember being a bit surprised when they announced a second season. Don’t ask me why—I shouldn’t have been. I knew people had been enthralled by what was supposed to be a summer replacement and that it had made CBS money. I think everyone watching thinks they could win if given the chance to play. Additionally, most people have become so separated from the outdoors and self-sufficiency that they wonder if they still have it in them genetically to be roommates with Mother Nature. 

JOEL: I don’t think anyone thought it would be forty seasons. If you can get a hundred episodes from a network prime-time show, you are considered very successful. Reality [shows], as well as scripted hits, have come and gone in this time. For Survivor, there looks to be a loyal audience that has been hanging around ten million viewers for the past twenty seasons. 

BALTAZZI: I think what keeps Survivor going strong is its relatability to social dynamics and the opportunity for an everyday person to win a million dollars if you play the game well. Survivor, in many respects, is a metaphor for playing the game of life. I also feel people love the play-along factor, trying to figure out what they would do in the same situation.

RAMONA: I never expected it to last, but I’m sure glad it did. I think the idea that an everyday, next-door-neighbor kind of person could go outside of their comfort zone, come face-to-face with themselves and compete for a million dollars is a huge draw. It’s the reason a lot of people have been asking to go back to a more pure Survivor game without all the gimmicks. Those early casts of run-of-the-mill Americans WAS the draw.

SEAN: I think Survivor is now a legacy show, meaning people have been watching it for so long, it’s become a fabric in their own lives. A whole generation of kids has now grown up watching the show. It’s crazy to think about. It’s a family show. The secret ingredient is excellent casting. We all see ourselves in the contestants, and we see people just like everyone else we know. They cast everyday people who represent interesting archetypes. We can all relate, hate, or love these people.


Written by

Martin Holmes

Martin is a freelance writer from England. He’s represented by Berlin Associates for comedy writing and writes about TV and entertainment, currently for TV Insider and Vulture, previously Digital Spy, ET Canada, and Yahoo. A finalist for the Shortlist Sitcom Search in 2012 for “Siblings,” Martin received his BA in English with Creative Writing from The University of Hull.


2 responses to “Birth of a Phenomenon – An Oral History of Survivor: Borneo”

  1. thank you for this splendid oral history. Great work on your part and many thanks to all who shared their experiences for it!

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