Arts and Entertainment

Survivor: A Miracle of Cable Television

For over 20 years, Survivor has harmonized danger and raw emotion to put the “real” in reality TV. By doing so, it has maintained a monumental audience that allows it to continue to thrive today.

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Host Jeff Probst informs 20 average Americans on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that they only have one minute to collect survival supplies for their new home: a deserted island. Pulses race as he counts down for them to jump ship and swim to their adventure of a lifetime: “It is the ultimate challenge. Twenty strangers forced to work together. They must learn to adapt or they’ll be voted out! In the end, only one will remain to claim the $1,000,000 dollar prize. Thirty-nine days, 20 people, one survivor!”

Survivor is one of the longest running reality TV shows, with over 20 years under its belt.The show has captured America with its unique, survivalist social experiment ever since its first season in May 2000. Each season, CBS producers strategically select 16 to 20 Americans from a competitive pool of thousands of applicants. These contestants, from vastly different walks of life, are ripped from their ordinary lives and pitted against one another on a desolate island. With a $1,000,000 prize and the elusive title of “Sole Survivor” at stake, patience and alliances are tested to find a winner that can “Outwit, Outplay, and Outlast” the show.

After airing in 2000, Survivor quickly became one of the most popular shows on television. While CBS was expecting about 35 to 40 million viewers for their inaugural season, 51.7 million people tuned in to the season finale to watch as contestant Richard Hatch was crowned the first ever “Sole Survivor.” This view count made it the second most watched show of the year, trailing only behind ABC’s broadcast of the Super Bowl. Survivor, which has had impressively persistent popularity throughout its 44 seasons, has been deemed the “miracle show” by CBS executives for outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting its reality show competitors.

Though cable TV is reaching its final era, Survivor has just begun a new one. Following the epic “Winners at War,” which invited 20 of the show’s most popular winners back to fight for a second crown, and a year-long COVID hiatus, the 41st season of Survivor was finally set to air in September 2021. That summer, Jeff Probst shared the show’s epic revitalization plan: “Survivor 41 will birth a new era of Survivor, with a faster, more dangerous, and much more intense game. We really leaned into having fun this season, and the best kind of Survivor fun is the dangerous kind.” This year, the show carries on its legacy with its 44th season—the fourth of this daunting new generation.

Survivor’s appeal stems from the unscripted experiences of its contestants. Left to survive on the island and separated into two teams, contestant “castaways” are responsible for getting their own food and water, building shelters, and managing campfires, all while competing in challenges against each other to earn island luxuries like a spa day. After each challenge, the losing castaways are sent to a tribal council and forced to vote one of their team members off the island. While the cut-throat elimination certainly raises tensions, the contestants’ island stays are also littered with physical dangers. Intense injuries culminating in a whopping 17 medical evacuations by boat and helicopter have actualized the fears of many castaways and viewers alike. In the show’s second season, for instance, contestant Michael Skupin was evacuated by helicopter after falling face first into his firepit. Skupin’s accident is widely regarded as the most intense in the show’s history, but was certainly not the last island catastrophe. By placing its contestants in truly high-stakes environments, Survivor rises above other survivalist shows like Naked and Afraid, in which contestants are supplied with behind-the-scenes amenities like vitamin supplements, delegitimizing the survivalist aspect.

The dangers of Survivor put the “real” in reality TV, and are beautifully harmonized with the heartwarming relationships that play out onscreen. As each season draws to a close, loved ones of the remaining castaways join the show for a reunion, but with an exhilarating twist: they must compete in a challenge to spend the day together. After contestants’ month-long separation from their families and friends, these reunions are tear-jerkers, most notably when parents are reunited with their children. In season 12, single father Shane Powers was brought to tears when Probst brought his teenage son, Boston, for a now fan-favorite loved one’s visit. Survivor has even forged new relationships between castaways, which have ultimately extended far beyond the show. Beloved contestant Amber Brkich quickly became Amber Mariano after hitting it off with iconic contestant Rob “Boston Rob” Mariano on an all-star season in 2004; they got engaged on the season’s reunion show.

Through its nail-biting suspense and moving displays of emotion, Survivor has captured the hearts of a massive audience for decades. In fact, its success has even inspired the creation of spin-off international franchises like Survivor: South Africa and Survivor: Australia. While cable TV continues to be replaced by streaming services, by some miracle, Survivor will remain.