Back in 2000 when CBS was considering moving forward on a new version of game show What’s My Line?, this time hosted by Night Court star Harry Anderson, it also had another new series in contention. Its name was Survivor.
Survivor, derived from the Swedish television series Expedition Robinson, was an entirely new concept, featuring a group of strangers placed in an isolated location where they must provide food, fire and shelter for themselves. The contestants compete in challenges for rewards and immunity from elimination, which in a typical episode features one person voted off the island at the end of the installment. The last contestant standing is awarded a cool $1 million.
At the time, CBS housed a number of reliable primetime programs, including sitcoms Everybody Loves Raymond and Becker; dramas Touched by an Angel and Judging Amy; and the granddaddy of them all, newsmagazine 60 Minutes. All finished the season ranked in the Top 20.
But the network, which was known for its large concentration of older viewers, wanted something different, something “sexy” and unique; a show that would potentially bring in the younger demographics the advertisers coveted. So, out when this new version of What’s My Line, and in came Survivor, which made its debut on May 31, 2000.
Flash to February 12th, and Survivor, from Mark Burnett and hosted by Jeff Probst, is back for its 40th edition, this time themed Survivor: Winners at War. Past winners (including two-time sole survivor Sandra Diaz-Twine) will compete against each other. For this 20th anniversary edition, the “most memorable, heroic and celebrated champions” from the last two decades (many who have made a career out of doing this show) battle to earn the title.
From the beginning
Unlike the typical array of repeats and leftovers the broadcast networks were known for airing in the summer months (save ABC game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which in 1999 proved the potential value of the post-Memorial Day / pre-Labor Day time frame), Survivor was an immediate magnet for curiosity seekers.
With 16 contestants from different walks of life clueless on the art of playing the game, it was 39-year-old Richard Hatch who liked walking around nude who recognized the value of forming alliances. Beginning the game on the Tagi tribe, he assembled a voting alliance with 72-year-old former Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch, 38-year-old Wisconsin truck driver Sue Hawk, and 22-year-old Kelly Wigglesworth from Kernville, California. As the other contestants voted blindly, the four stayed together, ultimately resulting as the top 4 in this first season.
At the final Tribal Council, Susan lambasted Kelly for switching her vote and proclaimed her support for Richard via her now famous “snakes and rats” speech.
Richard Hatch, of course, was named the first season’s sole survivor to a mammoth audience of 51.69 million viewers, according to Nielsen. And CBS had a potential long-term new reality player on its primetime lineup. But would viewers still show interest outside of the summer and in the regular (September to May) TV season?
Survivor: The Australian Outback
Debuting out of the Super Bowl on Sunday, January 28, 2001, a total of 45.4 million viewers tuned in to see this new batch of 16 contestants competing in the Australian Outback. Anchoring the Thursday 8 p.m. hour, not even NBC’s competing Friends could top this now red-hot reality competition, which in an average week brought in approximately 30 million viewers.
Survivor: The Australian Outback, which crowned 40-year old Knoxville, Tennessee mother Tina Wesson the sole survivor, finished first overall for the season in primetime. And, in what became a staple over the years, we had our first “hero” (Colby Donaldson, who was the runner up) and the first “villain” (Jerri Manthey, who was the eighth person voted out). All three would return to compete again, which in the now 20-year old Survivor universe became another common occurrence.
Another contestant in that second edition, Elisabeth Filarski, went on to a 10-season stint as a co-host on ABC daytime talker The View (from 2003 to 2013) under her married name, Elisabeth Hasselbeck.
CBS, no doubt, found both a ratings success and a show that could finally bring younger viewers to the network in Survivor. And for the contestants, Survivor offered a tremendous promotion platform that could lead to other things.
Effective the following season, 2001-02, Survivor became a twice annual tradition on CBS. Up next was Survivor: Africa on October 11, 2001, which saw professional soccer player Ethan Zohn (who is returning for Survivor: Winners at War) outwit, outplay and outlast the rest.
While not the mega-success it was in its earlier two editions, Survivor: Africa was still an arena for about 20-million viewers per week.
Survivor through the years
Naturally, the basic premise of the game remains the same, with one person in each edition named the sole survivor. In early seasons of the show, the discussion amongst the contestants at Tribal was not as intense as it is now. Contestants have now been known to switch alliances completely just seconds before casting their vote after talking to another contestant at Tribal. Early on there were really no blindsides; everyone knew who was going to be voted out, who was the next to go. Now anything — and everything — can happen.
Over the years, there have been a number of tweaks to the concept including…
Mixing teams is a staple on Survivor, but it did not occur until the third season. Now, the teams can be mixed and any time (and potentially more than once) until the perennial merge of the teams occurs.
The Hidden Immunity Idol
The hidden immunity idol made its debut in Survivor: Guatemala in September 2005. When played at Tribal Council, the hidden immunity idol makes the castaway who found it immune from elimination that night. Idols are typically usable until the Tribal Council with five players remaining, and do not need to be declared to other castaways when found.
In season four, Survivor: Marquesas in 2002, the controversial new Purple Rock tiebreaker format was used, resulting in the departure of contestant Paschal English, who at the time had no votes against him. If you drew the odd colored rock you were eliminated. But after just four seasons it became apparent to the producers that drawing a rock from a bag in the final four was just too unfair.
Fire Making Challenge
Making fire, of course, is integral to surviving at camp on Survivor. But it was not until season 10 in Survivor: Palau in 2005 that it became a potential skill to advance in the game at the end of each edition.
Exile Island, which is a remote location away from the tribal camps, where one or two castaways are sent to live in isolation from the rest of their tribe, was first introduced in Survivor: Palau in February 2005. While not used every season, it was also a part of the survivor editions set in Panama, Cook Islands, Fiji, Micronesia, Gabon, Tocantins, and San Juan del Sur. The first contestant to send himself (or herself) to Exile Island was Yau-Man Chan.
Used in Survivor: Redemption Island, Survivor: South Pacific and Survivor: Blood vs. Water, contestants voted out remained in the game, exiled from the other castaways, competing in challenges for a chance to return.
In the first season, Richard Hatch was revealed as the winner at the last tribal council instead of waiting a few months to do it live in front of a studio audience.
The Edge of Extinction
Effective in the 38th edition (debuting on February 20, 2019), contestants who were voted out had an option to take a boat to the “Edge of Extinction” rather than leave the game permanently. The Edge of Extinction is an abandoned beach where contestants can either wait for an opportunity to re-join the main game or choose to leave the game at any point. But the immediate flaw in the premise is the unlikelihood of most contestants ultimately leaving. Chris Underwood, who won the season, spent most of his time on the Edge of Extinction and was barely seen.
In this upcoming season, The Edge of Extinction is back because the producers want to give as much airtime as possible to the returning winners.
Naturally, it was the aforementioned final four — Richard Hatch, Kelly Wigglesworth, Sue Hawk and Rudy Boesch (above) — who are synonymous with Survivor’s first season. And the 20 competing in this upcoming Survivor: Winners at War season are all worthy of mention (see below for list). But there is an endless list of other memorable contestants in the hall of Survivor, both heroes and villains, that should be singled out.
As Survivor’s most notorious villain, Russell Hantz is known for his brash and ruthless game play where chaos ensues and Russell comes close to end of the game. But his unpleasant personality and lack of a social game definitely contributed to his two losses at the final Tribal Council.
John Dalton, or Johnny Fairplay as he’s commonly known on Survivor, is remembered the “greatest lie ever told on Survivor.”
Fairplay had his friend Dan show up for the “loved ones” reward episode of his season, where winners typically get to spend time with their friends or family. Fairplay asked Dan to come on, and to pretend his grandmother had died while he was on the show. When he received the “news,” Fairplay fake cried and utilized the sympathy it garnered to earn the challenge reward from a teammate.
Cirie Fields is known for the now classic blindside she contributed when Erik Reichenbach was sent packing on Survivor: Micronesia. But appearing on three different seasons, she is known for her social game, resilience, and stellar observational skills.
Rupert Boneham is the beloved pirate-like player, who competed on the Pearl Islands, All-Stars, Heroes vs. Villains and Blood vs. Water editions (not to mention teaming up with his wife Laura on The Amazing Race).
Then we have a rash of heroic competitors, loved by the audience but unable to walk away victorious (yet) that includes Joe Anglim, Ozzy Lusth, James Clement, and brothers Aras and Vytas Baskauskas.
Given the show’s genre descriptor, reality, sometimes things do get unusually “real” on Survivor.
Just this past fall, talent agent Dan from Survivor: Island of the Idols was ejected from the game — the first in the history of the series — after reports of inappropriate touching.
In Survivor: Game Changers in 2017, Zeke Smith, a 28-year-old transgender man competing, was outed by fellow contestant Jeff Varner at Tribal Council. “There is deception here. Deceptions on all levels,” said Varner.
Ultimately, Varner was voted out and issued a public apology.
Survivor: Winners at War
In the upcoming edition, debuting on Wednesday, February 12, 20 returning former winners return to compete for a grand prize of $2 million. And they are as follows in alphabetical order with the listing of their winning edition(s):
Natalie Anderson, 33, Survivor San Juan Del Sur (season 29, 2014)
Tyson Apostol, 39, Survivor Blood vs. Water (season 27, 2013)
Danni Boatwright, 43, Survivor Guatemala (season 11, 2005)
Sophie Clarke, 29, Survivor South Pacific (season 23, 2011)
Jeremy Collins, 41, Survivor Cambodia (season 31, 2015)
Ben Driebergen, 36, Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers (season 35, 2017)
Michele Fitzgerald, 29, Survivor Kaôh Rōng (season 32, 2016)
Wendell Holland, 35, Survivor: Ghost Island (season 36, 2018)
Adam Klein, 28, Survivor Millennials vs. Gen. X (season 33, 2016)
Yul Kwon, 44, Survivor Cook Islands (season 13, 2006)
Sarah Lacina, 35, Survivor: Game Changers (season 34, 2017)
Amber Brkich Mariano, 40, Survivor All-Stars (season 8, 2004)
Rob Mariano, 43, Survivor Redemption Island (season 22, 2011)
Parvati Shallow, 36, Survivor Micronesia (season 16, 2008)
Kim Spradlin, 36, Survivor One World (season 24, 2012)
Denise Stapley, 48, Survivor Philippines (season 25, 2012)
Nick Wilson, 28, Survivor David vs. Goliath (season 37, 2018)
Sandra Diaz-Twine, 44, Survivor Pearl Islands (season 7, 2003, and Survivor Heroes vs. Villains (season 20, 2010)
Tony Vlachos, 45, Survivor Cagayan (season 28, 2014)
Ethan Zohn, 45, Survivor Africa (season 3, 2001)
Once again, there is a mixture of heroes and villains. And, given that I personally have never missed an episode of Survivor, my educated pick to be the sole survivor is the wise and often under the radar Sarah Lacina.
Marc Berman is the founder and Editor-in-Chief for Programming Insider. He also covers the broadcasting landscape, at present, for Forbes.com, Watch!, Newspro and C21 Media in London. His work has appeared in Campaign US, The New York Daily News, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The Los Angeles Times and Emmy Magazine, among other outlets.