On May 31, 2020, Survivor will officially have been airing on US television for 20 years. As you might guess, this is kind of a big deal. Consider all the shows that have come and gone in that time-span. Consider all the world developments that have happened. There have been four presidents within the show’s lifetime. We’ve gone from AOL to MySpace to Facebook to Twitter to TikTok. Heck, Cingular was still around when Survivor: All-Stars was airing, and iPhones weren’t even a thing yet. Perhaps most tellingly, we are now in an era where we can have contestants on Survivor younger than the show itself.
There is a multitude of reasons why Survivor has stuck around so long, but one of them is clearly the show’s willingness to reinvent itself and try new things. New twists, new locations (until the show set up shop in Fiji), and especially new casts, help keep Survivor feeling fresh. That said, this does mean that the show that airs today is much different from the one that captured hearts and minds back in 2000. Teleport someone fresh off the finale of Survivor: Borneo and show them an episode of Island of the Idols. They’ll probably recognize the show (if nothing else, Jeff Probst is immortal), but they’ll have a lot of questions about what’s going on and how we got where we are today.
That’s the question we’re going to explore today. How did we transition from the Survivor that became a pop culture phenomenon to the Survivor we have today? People like to break Survivor up into different eras, and that’s what we’re doing today, by looking both at changes in the overall style of the game and differences in how both the audience and the general public perceive the show. Now, of course, there’s a certain amount of subjectivity here—there is no one definitive way to divide up the seasons. This is just the way that makes sense to me, and you are certainly free to disagree. However, I hope to explain why I have made these divisions the way that I have. This will allow us to see and explore the evolution of Survivor, starting from the very beginning, as well as pay tribute to the show die-hard fans have been following all this time.
The Golden Age (Borneo – Africa)
The origins of Survivor, and by the numbers, the most popular the show has ever been. No individual episode has matched the viewership of the Borneo finale, nor the overall ratings for The Australian Outback. Many lists lump together the first eight seasons into a similar “golden age,” and it’s easy to understand why. Pretty much all seasons in this era followed a standard formula with few “twists,” Pagongings or attempted Pagongings were common, and things like hidden immunity idols were not even an idea on Probst’s whiteboard. However, I would argue that the first three seasons are in a league of their own and therefore deserve their own category.
On the gameplay side of things, while the first eight seasons are all “twist-lite,” especially compared to modern Survivor, the first three were especially so. Not counting The Australian Outback running for 42 days, the only twist during the first three seasons was the tribe swap on Africa. The reaction to the swap came with the same gravitas as any major twist in this day and age (and a lot of controversy), yet a tribe shuffle today is considered old hat. Even as early as the following season, Survivor: Marquesas, it began to be seen—both in and out of the game—as a regular occurrence and not all that shocking. That, for me, makes these first seasons their own era. In fact, this is probably the era that has had the most influence on the show as a whole since it codified the concept of the “alliance,” which no season since has dared to stray from.
However, I would say the big difference that separates the first three seasons from those that have come after is in their popularity. As I mentioned at the top, Survivor has never been as big as it was in the early days, and I’m not just talking about numbers anymore. This era of Survivor was the one where pretty much everyone with even a passing interest was talking about it. It was the highest-rated show on TV outside of the SuperBowl. It made the news. It made magazine covers. It made watercooler talk. Ask anybody on the street about these seasons, and they could tell you at least the basics about the game and location—and might even be able to name a few players from each season.
Speaking from personal experience, as someone who joined the Survivor fandom somewhat later (Guatemala was the season that got me hooked), even without having watched the show, I could have told you at least a couple of facts about these OG seasons. Speaking with my friends who don’t watch the show, the second question I get (after “Is that show still on?”) is usually some variant on “Is the show always won by naked gay people?” What this shows, to me, is that these three seasons—and Borneo in particular—have infiltrated public consciousness in a way subsequent seasons simply haven’t and probably never will again. Therefore, to me, this puts them in their own category.
The Silver Age (Marquesas – All-Stars)
As I said before, these seasons are similar to the first three in that the game overall was simpler. With the exception of All-Stars, it was always 16 players on two tribes, with a Pagonging usually at least discussed, if not carried out. There were no hidden immunity idols, or any other gameplay advantages to shake up the majority. The focus remained on the social politics of the game, rather than the strategy. However, now the contestants and the audience knew to expect the unexpected. Tribe swaps became the rule rather than the exception, and the show started including various twists to shake things up, such as the late merge in Survivor: Thailand or the Outcasts in Survivor: Pearl Islands.
Unlike the first three seasons, however, these kinds of twists were now somewhat anticipated. Sure, there was still a certain amount of shock in-game when they happened, but there was a sense amongst both players and audience members that these shake-ups were now part of Survivor. Contestants started to realize that things may not be as straightforward as they were in previous seasons. We also got our first taste of a themed division of tribes in this era, with the gender divide in Survivor: The Amazon, something that was innocuous and sort of silly at the time but would have greater consequences for later seasons.
From an audience perspective, this is where the show started to dip in popularity a bit. Don’t misunderstand: these seasons are still beloved by many, especially long-time fans of the show, and Survivor was still a Top 10 rated TV show at the time. But it’s where the show started to fade out of the general public consciousness. It was still there, as evidenced by things like the engagement of Rob and Amber on All-Stars making the news. Still, now it was less something everyone could talk about and more something for die-hard fans to obsess over with each other, a trend that would overall only get more pronounced as the show aged further. That said, this era retained exit interviews, press coverage, and discussion on CBS’s The Early Show, and while not as well-remembered as the original three seasons, is hardly forgotten.
This era is capped off with All-Stars, due to being a tribute to the entire history of the show up to that point, and to setting up the transition to a new era, essentially bidding farewell to these characters that we had come to know and love over the first four years of the show’s run, not realizing that they could ever be brought back for a third or fourth try.
The Era of Experimentation (Vanuatu – Guatemala)
For the first eight seasons, while various different twists were introduced, Survivor rarely bothered to shake up its core formula. This era was the one where they started really pushing the envelope, hence why I have dubbed it “The Era of Experimentation.” This is where the show started playing with things that had been the accepted norm previously. Can we reuse a theme? Can we have a season with 18 all-new players? How about 20? Can we bring back new players in a non-All-Stars format? Whatever an individual might think, the answer to all these questions from a production standpoint was “Yes,” and so we started seeing these shakeups more often.
Eighteen and eventually 20 contestants became the standard over the traditional 16, especially as the show began casting fewer people with survival skills. Instead, they cast more people who made great characters but maybe wouldn’t do so well in the outdoors, thus necessitating having extra players in the game in case of evacuations throwing off the schedule. Themed seasons would become more common down the line, as would returning players, though that effect would take a little longer to be felt. This was also where the prototypes for Exile Island and the hidden immunity idol would be developed, and as we’ll see in the next era, those elements would go on to change the course of the game for good.
As for viewership, this was really where common knowledge of Survivor dropped off big-time. A lot of the old-time fans had had enough after All-Stars, especially seeing how the show was beginning to tweak its formula more and more. Thus, some people stopped watching, seeing as how it was too different from the show they had fallen in love with. Apart from continued exit interviews on The Early Show, there was no real national news attention attached to the show anymore. And while ratings were still relatively high by today’s standards, this was the point of a mass exodus of casual viewers. After this era, old fans leaving the show would about equal the new fans joining the fandom, keeping the numbers for the show relatively consistent (though with a decline as things like DVR and streaming came into play) for the rest of the show’s history.
In terms of reception, change is always going to make things difficult to get attached to, and with the exception of Survivor: Palau, none of these seasons tend to make the favorites list of many fans.
The Era of Exile (Exile Island – Tocantins)
The longest era on this list, two things really unite the seasons in this period. One, as the name might imply, is Exile Island. Except for Survivor: China, which had the kidnapping twist instead, every season in this era featured Exile Island, with different strategies about how to use it. Do you send the biggest challenge threat in the hopes of weakening them? How about the biggest social threat? Do you send the weakest person in the hopes that they’ll quit? And, perhaps most importantly, who do you want to have a shot at finding a hidden immunity idol? While the twist as a whole remained the same (with the occasional tweak, such as sending two players instead of one), the strategy around it changed and helped keep each season fresh.
The big twist, however, was clearly the hidden immunity idol, which has appeared on every season since its inception. Developed initially for Guatemala, it was put into regular circulation in Survivor: Panama – Exile Island and altered to the format we know today in Survivor: Fiji. Again, this was a shakeup that pretty much began the shift in the game. Social politics still dominated but now had to include discussion of who had the idol and how that idol should be dealt with. This, I would argue, was really where the show began to switch focus to more of the strategic game and less of the social game. While the social aspect remains dominant in determining the winner, even to this day, the focus of the show seemed more centered around how alliances formed and what strategy they would use, rather than on how individuals were ingratiating themselves with others. And, for good or for ill, the hidden idol was going to be a part of the game from here on out.
From a viewer’s perspective, this is where the show started to stabilize again into a more recognizable format for the modern audience. Still, with the broadest time-span on this list, there’s not going to be a unifying assessment on the quality of these seasons overall. Some of the most beloved seasons (such as Micronesia) come from this era, as well as some of the most hated (such as Fiji). As such, there was no real shift in the overall perception of the show, though, as this is where exit interviews on The Early Show came to an end (save for receiving the actual check), Survivor really died out in the media consciousness for a while during this era.
The Hantzian Age (Samoa – One World)
It may be seen as a crime by some that the only player to get an era of Survivor named after them is Russell Hantz, but when you look at his impact on these six seasons, as well as the trappings of the show since his introduction, the man has earned the right. Four out of these six seasons have someone surnamed Hantz on them, and the two that don’t still feel his presence. From the “Russell-proof” idols in Survivor: Nicaragua to his name being invoked in strategy discussions in One World, the name Hantz was on everyone’s mind.
Russell’s impact on Survivor is still felt to this day. Bear in mind, up until Hantz came along in Samoa, one needed clues to find a hidden immunity idol. Granted, clues still get handed out sometimes, but the fact remains that just looking for an idol on your own without any clues is now the accepted norm. At the time? It was something innovative and even shocking. Something both audience and players hadn’t seen before. It really shook up the game and is now the standard for new players.
As the name would imply, this is also where Survivor really started to shift to bringing out the big names over and over again. While each season certainly had its big characters that stood out above the rest, casts were still primarily regarded as ensemble pieces that succeeded or failed as a whole. Now the show seemed to feel that as long as you had a couple of big personalities to draw in the numbers, the rest of the cast didn’t require much focus. Add onto this the failure of Nicaragua as a season featuring an all-new cast, coupled with following arguably the show’s biggest success in the all-returnee Heroes vs. Villains, and the stage was set for repeated replaying of old favorites.
In this era, we got contestants coming back three times (four in the case of Boston Rob), and the “captains” twist from Survivor: Guatemala was resurrected multiple times to allow for more returning players. Whereas each previous era had, at most, one season with returning players, half of this era included returning players. While it would thankfully not be the case forever, Survivor seemed to be resting on the stars it had already created, rather than trying to find exciting new players. It even started chipping away at some of the mainstays of the show, with the Rites of Passage tribute being eliminated entirely and locations being doubled-up on as a cost-saving measure.
The audience, as a whole, did not respond well to this. Although, how much of a success or failure you find this run of seasons depends somewhat on how much you enjoy the gameplay of Russell Hantz. Still, it’s telling that out of six seasons, only one, Heroes vs. Villains, is positively regarded amongst fans. Survivor: Samoa might be tolerable if you really enjoy watching Russell, but there is a reason the back four seasons in this era are sometimes referred to as “The Dark Ages” (which I did consider using as a name, but felt it would be an insult to the era including HvV).
It should be noted that outside of Samoa‘s Monica Padilla, this era got no representation on Survivor: Cambodia – Second Chance despite having a fair number of contestants from these seasons in the voting ballot to appear on the season. This should tell you something about how well-regarded this era is by fans. Surprisingly, however, this era did see the show pick up some wider media interest, mostly for the show reaching its 10th anniversary during this time. We got the Surviving ‘Survivor’ Special, and that’s not nothing.
The Survivor Renaissance (Philippines – Cagayan)
Strangely enough, this era has many of the hallmarks of the previous era. Returning contestants were still the norm—appearing on 3 out of 4 seasons—and still used as a marketing tool. What changed was the emphasis. Whether it was because of casting or how the new players were edited, a lot more focus was placed on the new players in this era. Sure, the returnees were there, but now they were the frosting on the cake rather than the cake itself. New players also started running their own games and alliances, rather than simply being led around by returning players. Even if they weren’t always successful, it still made the newer players stand out and helped build new characters for future returnee seasons, rather than merely relying on the old guard to carry the show.
This era also saw the return of a couple of old concepts. The three-tribe format from All-Stars was resurrected and helped breathe fresh air into the show, as well as going far to prevent Pagongings. This is also where themed “versus” seasons began to feature heavily. We saw the return of the Fans vs. Favorites format in Caramoan, while Blood vs. Water shook up the strategy and social politics of the show, while still providing an exciting ride. And, of course, Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty really dived into what skills were needed to win Survivor and helped give the season a unique feel.
Of course, the overall strong point of this era is a collection of casts that, except for Caramoan, stand well on their own and provided a lot of interesting new characters and returnees. It’s fitting, then, that this era ends with Survivor: Cagayan, the first all-new players season in two years. It was a season of huge personalities and enthralling gameplay and rekindled faith in completely new casts for the show.
As the name would imply, these seasons were overall received well by the audience. Caramoan is the only exception, and even then, I’d say the reaction is more mixed than outright negative (awful pre-merge, fantastic post-merge). This era put an end to the Hantzes on American television with the breakdown of Brandon Hantz, and this allowed most of the fandom to move forward and enjoy the new players. Survivor gained a bit of a resurgence of popularity in the fandom due to the better quality of seasons, as well as the beginnings of discussions around the social implications of the show.
On a slightly sadder note, the elimination of mainstays of the show continued, as Russ Landau, the theme song composer, left the show after Blood vs. Water, and with him, original theme songs, to the point where the full introduction was shown less and less often. Still, proving once again that a strong cast can override anything, these seasons overall remain well-regarded to this day.
The Laurel Year (San Juan del Sur – Worlds Apart)
The shortest era on this list, one might argue that I should have saved this name for the era with Ghost Island in it. However, I am not referring to Laurel the player but rather the idea of resting on one’s laurels. At this point, this is really what Survivor was doing. They returned to the well of past successes, including more “versus” seasons and having all-new casts, but they didn’t do much to build on them. San Juan del Sur was basically a copy of Blood vs. Water, just with new players and Exile Island instead of Redemption Island. Meanwhile, Worlds Apart was themed around White Collar vs. Blue Collar vs. No Collar, which in practice was just another Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty. There wasn’t much innovation during this era, except for the introduction of the “extra vote” twist, but the show was in a solid place.
Fan reaction to these two seasons tends to be middle of the road. They usually range from “Yeah, it was ok, I guess,” to “Wow, that was not very good.” The fact that these seasons don’t really seem to elicit a strong reaction from anyone is, in many ways, a mark against them. The biggest thing to come out of this era of Survivor was a fan-vote for the cast of the next season. Yet, because of the strength of what came before and what would come after, no one really cares. The show was allowed to coast for a year while it geared up for the next big shakeup of Survivor.
The Big Moves Era (Cambodia – Ghost Island)
Most people, especially those who complain about the “decline” of Survivor, tend to list Cambodia as the start of the downward spiral. While I don’t agree that all seasons in the 30s can be lumped together, Cambodia is definitely the birth of the Big Moves era. Add to that, the idea of the “Survivor resume” originating in Millennials vs. Gen-X and Survivor completed its shift to strategic gameplay rather than social politics. Hints of the social game were still there, even in the present day, but the players who get attention are now the ones who are the movers and shakers of strategy and make big, eye-catching shake-ups to the tribal hierarchy in some way.
Thus, this is the first era really defined by strategy talk rather than social talk. To facilitate this, more twists and advantages began to get added to the game. Amongst others, this era brought us the Legacy Advantage, the Vote Steal, the Reward Steal, Final Four Firemaking, the New Final Tribal Council Format, and Removing a Juror. All in the name of making sure we got a winner who made Big Moves in their season. We also saw a continuation of “versus” seasons, with only one non-returnee season in this era that didn’t divide the tribes along some theme. And, to cap it all off, it was during this era where Survivor made the supposedly permanent shift to Fiji.
Really, though, it is Ghost Island, and the victory of Wendell, that I would argue brought this era to a close. You see, the Final Tribal Council of Ghost Island, in my view, put the idea of “You need to make big moves to win Survivor” to the test, as we had the flashier Domenick go up against the more social Wendell. Both played well, and it was an understandably close vote. Yet, when all was said and done, the social game still triumphed. Wendell won out over Dom. And so, the thesis that all these seasons had been building up to was demolished. As we’ll talk about shortly, though, trends that were started here would continue, and the idea of a certain type of person being better equipped to win the game would remain. It would just be tweaked a little.
Audience-wise, there is a clear downward trajectory in how this era is regarded. It started with Cambodia, which is generally well-regarded in the fandom. It moved onto Kaoh Rong and Millennials vs. Gen-X, both of which, while not hugely exciting, are seen as pretty decent seasons in their own right. But it’s from Game Changers, and beyond, that the cracks really started to show. It became clear that Survivor was forcing the “Big Moves” concept on us, and it got old fast. When coupled with the influx of new advantages, it began to feel like production was taking too much control of the show, rather than simply letting the game play out in the hands of the players. Also, in terms of mainstream coverage, the show only made headlines for controversies, like the Varner/Zeke incident in Game Changers.
The Big Twists Era (David vs. Goliath – Present)
To me, what distinguishes this era of Survivor is just how much it emphasizes the necessity of idols and advantages to win the game. Some might see this as an extension of the “Big Moves” idea, and to a certain degree, it is. It doesn’t help that the influx of advantages began during the last era, from “Advantagegeddon” in Game Changers to Ghost Island being centered around the acquisition of idols and advantages. For me, though, what separates this era is how these things are seen as good in and of themselves. Before, idols and advantages were seen as a tool to facilitate Big Moves, which ultimately still came from the player. David vs. Goliath, however, was the first season to emphasize their use as being winner-worthy in and of themselves, in Probst’s opening speech to the contestants.
From there on out, who had what idol or advantage dominated discussion on the show, to the point where the chyrons for players now emphasize what and how many advantages they have, rather than their occupations. Survivor: Island of the Idols even had Boston Rob and Sandra endorsing the idea that playing idols and advantages is what wins you the game, which was ironic given advantage-less Tommy won in the end. Edge of Extinction was billed as a twist to look deeper into the emotional journey of each player but was instead an excuse for more advantages, idols, and scavenger hunts. The emphasis now is taken almost completely off the players and placed instead on advantages, idols, and twists.
It’s difficult to say what the audience reaction to this era is like since we’re currently in it. David vs. Goliath was well-received, but that was mostly due to its stellar cast and innovative editing, rather than twists and advantages. Edge of Extinction is rightly vilified by the fandom at large. And while the jury’s still out on Island of the Idols, most hate seems directed towards the actions of Dan and the show’s inadequate handling of the inappropriate touching incidents.
I would like to say that Tommy’s win would work in a similar way to Wendell’s in the last era since his win without ever having an idol or advantage kind of defeats the thesis here. But since we’ve seen several new advantages and game twists announced for the upcoming on Winners at War, plus the return of the Edge of Extinction, it seems we’ll have at least one more season in this era before we get a new overarching theme.
So, what’s the takeaway from all this? Well, that’s entirely up to you, especially as my division of seasons is in no way definitive, but for me, my takeaway is essentially, “This too shall pass.” True, Survivor may not be where you want it to be right now, and it certainly won’t go back to the way it used to be. But a combination of love and hate is, to me, more powerful than apathy, which is what we’d have if nothing changed about the game. Plus, it means the show always has the chance to do better. It may take them a while. There may be no visible light at the end of the tunnel. But whatever else, there’s always the chance for Survivor to learn and grow, and for that, I’m glad to continue watching after all these years.