‘Survivor’: 1 Hours-Long Activity Shows How Real the Game Is

Survivor’s Tribal Councils have become recognized as one of the most iconic scenes on reality TV, but more goes on during each elimination than the weekly episodes have time to show. The series, which celebrated its 40th season with a special season comprised entirely of previous winners that aired this spring, has evolved significantly over the last two decades. With that growth has come a surge in behind-the-scenes details about what really goes on at Tribal Council. 

(L-R) Denise Stapley, Nick Wilson, Sarah Lacina, Tony Vlachos, Michele Fitzgerald and Ben Driebergen at Tribal Council on 'Survivor'
(L-R) Denise Stapley, Nick Wilson, Sarah Lacina, Tony Vlachos, Michele Fitzgerald and Ben Driebergen | CBS via Getty Images

What is Tribal Council?

No reality competition show would be complete without a suspenseful elimination ceremony to determine which contestants get to move on to the next week, and Survivor’s Tribal Councils may be among the most famous moments in reality TV. In fact, they have become so well known in pop culture that even readers who haven’t seen the show have probably heard references to voting someone off the island in other TV shows or in conversations. 

Within the first few days of landing on the island, Survivor castaways compete in their first immunity challenge to determine who is at risk for being eliminated at the first Tribal Council of the season. Most seasons begin with two tribes of players that compete in an obstacle course against one another. The members of the tribe that completes the series of physical challenges and puzzles first are safe from elimination for that round, while the players in the losing group must vote a member of their tribe out of the game. 

Midway through the season, the tribes “merge” into one group. Following the merge, all contestants participate in each Tribal Council, and everyone is at risk of being eliminated except the winner of an individual immunity challenge. Although each episode only airs a 10-15 minute Tribal Council segment, past contestants have revealed that the pre-vote conversations and voting process take much longer.      

Most Tribal Councils last for hours

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Like many elements of reality TV, the heavily-edited version of Tribal Council that you see on Survivor isn’t quite reality. Most Tribal Council meetings consist of an hours-long conversation between host Jeff Probst and the castaways about everything that is going on in the game, according to Ranker. Although the discussion is not scripted, Probst’s direct–and often sassy–questions pinpoint the strategic decisions and spark the arguments between players that make it into each week’s episode.

Though the unedited version of Tribal Council has been described as “kind of boring,” producers comb through hours of footage from heading to tribal council, to someone heading off into the woods after being voted out, to finding a handful of quotes and facial expressions that best sum up the current direction of the game and the main factors that castaways are considering when deciding who to ultimately vote out. 

Decisions can still be made after Tribal Council starts

CBS may not show viewers the full picture of everything that affects each episode’s Tribal Council, but the reality of the game often extends well into the meetings. Although each episode shows a few short segments of the conversations that are happening between various castaways regarding their strategies for deciding who to vote out in between the immunity challenge and Tribal Council, things can still change between the moment castaways light their torches and the moment they drop their ballots into the urn.

Contestants haven’t always made up their minds before heading to Tribal Council, players accidentally reveal game-changing advantages, secret alliances, or other key information, and arguments between castaways often lead to several minutes of frantic whispering between players that can sway the outcome of the final vote. Often referred to by fans as “live tribals,” these spur-of-the-moment decisions show that Tribal Council is a much more significant part of the game than the version that is seen on TV may indicate. During many episodes, the events of Tribal Council can have a very real impact on whose torch Jeff Probst ultimately snuffs out.