How Real Is ‘Survivor’?

By this time in the world of “reality television,” most viewers know that everything that is said and done is not necessarily spontaneous. Some might say Survivor looks pretty true-to-life but inviting television entertainment, in most cases, is, at least on some level, “staged.”

We all know there are cameramen in place with the contestants. Audience members probably have guessed that first-aid and medical professionals must be nearby. So, let’s take a look at how “real” Survivor is.

The use of stand-ins and doubles

Kelly Wentworth on the ninth episode of 'SURVIVOR: Edge of Extinction'
Kelly Wentworth on the ninth episode of ‘SURVIVOR: Edge of Extinction’ | CBS via Getty Images

When a contest takes place, the shots of the race or strength battle are mapped out first to make sure the video personnel know where they should locate their cameras. Also, what is called the Dream Team, young crew members, run through the challenges at least twice, one of which occurs in the presence of the challenge production crew. This footage sometimes makes it to the next episode. It is also used by the host, Jeff Probst, to explain the rules and processes involved in the next challenge.

According to Nat Berman, writing for TV Over Mind, body doubles have been used since the first season of Survivor. There were times, he said, that body doubles were used during activities such as swimming races or other events that were too exhausting for the average person.

Sometimes, actors and models are chosen to become contestants. In 2008, casting director Lynne Spillman told Today Show interviewers that this occurs when there are not enough qualified applicants for a given season. Sometimes, it is just easier to find individuals in the modeling and acting fields who look great on camera and take direction well. These individuals do go through the complicated casting process, however.

Voter tampering

It does happen, occasionally, that voting is unfair. Stacy Stillman, a former contestant, alleged that producer Mark Burnett convinced two contestants to vote against her, reports ABC News.

In another incident, one contestant, Lauren, did not vote at the tribal gathering. But when the host, Jeff Probst, found that there was going to be a tie, Jeff read all the votes and announced the fact. No one noticed that there was not an eleventh ballot. Not one of the contestants noticed that one vote was missing.

Enhanced editing

Hours and hours of footage accumulates for each week’s episode. Once that much footage is complete, the chances for piecing together a dramatic and compelling show are excellent. When every action and reaction is available, good editors can manipulate the storylines in creative and fun-to-watch ways. The players often become adept at seeming to be upset, nervous, overwhelmed, or displaying just about any emotion that can make the storyline more interesting to watch.

No, the show has no script. Neither is it staged in the same way that a play or fictional movie comes to be. One writer for Quora calls the type of entertainment supplied in reality television programs, “coached improvisation.”

Scene re-enactments

If a better shot is needed, Mark Burnett, the show’s executive producer, admits that scenes have been reshot to get better footage. As already stated, authenticity does not also guarantee the great TV experience will be memorable. 

Wardrobe adjustments

In some cases, contestants on Survivor have their clothing chosen by producers. The show’s producers sometimes want to portray cast members in stereotypical ways, so they pick clothing that accentuates a contestant’s external stereotype.

John Cochran, a Harvard Law student, was tapped to portray a nerd, so those in charge dressed him a sweater vest, an apparel piece John had never worn in his life.

Transportation

Contestants are driven from site to site. The audience assumes that the stalwart crew walks from tribal councils to challenges and back to camp. Instead of roughing it, as would seem natural when spending 39 days in a rugged and harsh location, the teams are driven from place to place.

Does it matter?

Survivor continues to be a top-rated show and a stand-out for CBS. Isn’t it more fun to add a touch of “fantasy” to the show, rather than letting viewers see the show in its warts-and-all status?

For most of us, taking out the boring; mistake-ridden; and unnecessary parts of the show make the viewing much more appealing.

Getting to know the unique and highly-motivated cast each new season makes the show a must-see for fans of “reality” shows.