These Survivor Secrets Reveal How the Series Managed to Outwit, Outplay, Outlast the Competition

Come on in guys and celebrate Survivor's season 46 premiere Feb. 28 by checking out these secrets about the OG reality competition where few contestants are there to make friends.

By Sarah Grossbart Feb 28, 2024 1:00 PMTags
Watch: Jeff Probst Explains New Twists Before "Survivor: Winners at War"

For nearly 24 years, the tribe has spoken. 

And by tribe, we mean the Survivor super fans who have ensured that the OG competition series has managed to outwit, outplay and outlast its reality TV competition to reach its 46th season, premiering on CBS and Paramount+ with a special two-hour episode Wednesday, Feb. 28. 

Unless you've been voted off the proverbial island, you know that host Jeff Probst has been helming the wildest tribal councils he's ever seen and snuffing out torches since the very beginning. And with this upcoming season he's promised a few more bold moves. 

Noting he's been a fuzzier, gentler version of himself in recent seasons, he explained to Entertainment Weekly that after the pandemic, "I was definitely full of positivity, and I wanted to be a show that parents felt good about watching with their kids."

But with season 46 contestants teasing a particularly explosive season, Probst is ready to kick butt and take some buffs at tribal council. 

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"That part of me is starting to come back," Probst said of a return to grilling contestants before he tallies the votes. "I'm ready to saddle back up, get on the horse, and sling a few arrows. So I think over the next year you'll start to see that coming back into play, and I hope the players will enjoy the banter and the back and forth."

Want to know what they're playing for? Yes, we're all well aware that the contestant who manages to outwit, outplay and outlast their fellow competitors will score the big prize, but did you know even the players who spend a scant few days without food, plumbing or any reasonable amount of privacy walk away with some cash? 

Come on in guys, because we're digging deep into the secrets behind the success of Survivor

How They Pick the Castaways

Tens of thousands of people apply to be on the show, and ultimately, the casting producers will mix a bunch of Survivor aficionados with people, who usually end up being models or actors, they recruit. Still, those recruited players must go through the full casting process.

"Believe it or not we receive many applications from the same people year after year," former casting director Lynne Spillman, who had been with the show from the beginning until 2018, told Reality Wanted.

Now, host Jeff Probst is handling casting

"Typically, it goes like this," he outlined to Entertainment Weekly. "We hop on Zoom, and they start to tell us about their lives. I often spend the first few minutes thinking the same thing… 'How have they already done so much at such a young age, and what was I doing when I was 24!??'"

There are several rounds after that, including a meeting with the show's pyschologists. "Our only intention is to get to know who they really are," explained Probst. "It's one of the things I try to stress to people who are applying to be on Survivor. You don't have to be anything other than who you are. It sounds so simple but it's the absolute truth. You do not need an emotional underdog story, you do not need to be the funniest person in the room, you don't need to have a college degree, you don't need to be anything other than you."

Everyone Wins…Sort Of

Even if you get sent home first, you make money by going on Survivor (though your ego may be forever wounded).

Here's a quick rundown of what competitors make:

For castaways who are voted out pre-jury, they basically get an all-expenses paid trip to Fiji as they are required to stay for the entirety of production to avoid spoilers. Plus, each contestant reportedly gets $10,000 for the live finale and reunion taping at the end of the season.

But in an interview with TMZ, Jonny Fairplay spilled the beans on how much castaways allegedly make: the first person eliminated can make $12,500, according to the infamous villain, who noted jury members get $40,000. "I'm not sure I was  allowed to say that," he noted after. "I might've broken an NDA." 

While the winner of Survivor gets $1 million, the runner-up pockets $100,000 and the third place finisher earns $85,000. Though they no longer do the fan-favorite award, the winner of that public vote would receive $100,000 or a car, if it was sponsored.

Timing Is Everything

The only season of Survivor to run longer than 39 days? Season two (The Australian Outback), most likely because of the breakout success and monster ratings for the first season.

Aside from that, each episode is about three days of the competition, so editors have the fun task of trimming 300-500 hours of footage down to a tight 44-minute episode. (Contestants are filmed 24/7.)

As for the tribal councils, those can take anywhere from 1-2 hours to film, as Probst actually has each castaway answer the same question. As for how and where he tallies the votes, Probst consults with his fellow producers (who are watching the contestants cast their votes via a live-feed), and they decide in which order the host will read the votes. 

Packing Woes

So what can the castaways bring with them? Per Survivor Wiki, they are not allowed to bring their luggage during filming "except for one hand-held item."

And as for the clothes they wear (and tear) during the 39 days, they have to be pre-approved by production. 

"I would have given anything to bring my parka jacket with me into the game, but alas, what we wear is not entirely up to us as contestants. Our clothes are supposed to be a good representation of who we are and what we would normally wear in our day-to-day lives, " David vs. Goliath's Angelina Keeley told EW after she infamously tried to get a just-voted-out Natalie Cole to give her her jacket (she didn't get it). "We start with one pair of clothing, and what you start the game with is what you end your game with, unless you get creative."

In a Reddit AMA, former competitor Max Dawson revealed, "They can be very specific, to the point of sending you to a specific store with photos of the items they want you to bring." John Cochran's iconic sweater vests? Picked for him!

Some Toiletries Provided

Per Today, contestants have "access to a container with necessary supplies, such as feminine products, birth control, vital medications, contact lens solution, sunscreen, and insect repellent."

Though there's not necessarily an endless supply of necessities like tampons. Season 39 alum Lauren-Ashley Beck claimed that she got her period twice during her month-long stay and the second time around she had to wait nearly a full day to receive a tampon as the crew had to venture into a nearby village to restock. 

Not provided? Toothbrushes or razors, which is why some competitors get laser hair removal and/or teeth whitening treatments before filming begins.

Crew Conditions

So...where are Probst and the crew members staying while the competitors are roughing it? 

"The crew sleeps in whatever accommodations are available," Probst revealed during his 2014 Reddit AMA. "In the Philippines we were situated in the middle of the ocean. On this one island there just happened to be a massive (usually empty) casino and a large hotel (usually empty). No idea what goes on there when we're not around but it made for an awesome base camp for us as we all had our own rooms with showers and air conditioning!"

In other seasons, they've utilized tents, he continued: "I remember so vividly being in these single person tents in Kenya. It was incredible. Every time you'd pull your cot out to look at the stars and then every morning when you unzipped your tent you did it as quietly as possible because you knew there was a good chance you'd have a herd of Zebra or a few giraffe outside your tent. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for sure."

As for what a "normal" day looks like for Probst, he answered, "No day is alike, they're longer than you would imagine and much more fun than you would believe. The show runs 24/7 and as Exec Producer that means you are always 'on'—but we have one of the most kick ass production teams in the world."

Challenge Accepted

Did you know Survivor has its own "Dream Team"? They are the group of crew members who run through and test all of the challenges the castaways will compete in, usually running through them at least twice—first, to see how it works and to make sure it does work (along with figuring out the best camera angles), and the second time is so they can be filmed as if they are the contestants while Probst is explaining the challenge during the episode. 

And if you ever find the rules as explained by Probst confusing at times, you are definitely not alone, as the contestants are usually given a more in-depth explanation by challenge producer John Kirhoffer. He leads the team responsible for all of the show's games, answering any questions the contestants might (and likely will) have. Also present is someone from CBS' legal team to ensure the competition remains fair. 

Let's Get Physical(s)

Before and after each challenge, contestants individually meet with the show's medics. And medical staff is always on-call and standing by should any emergencies arise (see that time three competitors collapsed during a single challenge in Survivor: Kaôh Rōng.)


Even if you are the first person eliminated from the competition, you still spend the full 39 days wherever your season is filming. (Spoiler prevention can have its perks!) "Ponderosa" is where eliminated contestants who last long enough to become members of the jury are sent to live, where they have access to food, entertainment, running water, etc., and it's usually in a resort or hotel.  And they are allowed to socialize with their fellow jury members. 

During Micronesia, CBS introduced Life at Ponderosa, available to watch online, which gave fans the opportunity to see what goes down once the torches are snuffed out. 

If you are eliminated earlier on, not making the cut for the jury, you live in a neighboring area once the jury starts to assemble. 

In Case of Emergency

Believe it or not, the first time the show had to evacuate the cast due to a natural disaster wasn't until a cyclone hit Fiji during Millennials vs. Gen X (season 33 in 2016). And when the game has to be stopped, it really stops. 

"We made the decision to bring them to base camp so that we would all be together. We put each tribe in a separate room with absolutely nothing in it," Probst told EW of the shutdown. "No food, no blankets, no pillows, nothing. They were monitored by producers the entire night. And, to their credit, they did not talk or try to form alliances. They honored the good faith agreement we had made. The next morning, we returned them to the beaches and the game resumed."

And in 2018's season 37, the castaways had to be evacuated two times due to cyclones. (Fiji, man!) Again, they were sequestered and monitored to prevent gameplay. But Probst commended the competitors for their "respect" for the game during the two breaks. 

"They appreciated we were looking out for them," Probst told EW. "Equally important, they also respected that the game, while temporary on hold, was still alive and so they did not challenge us or try to get away with anything."

Car Service

While players are often seen walking to challenges and tribal councils, they are actually shuttled there by production, but they are also prohibited from any talk or game-play when they are being transported off-camera.

Highs and Lows, According to Probst

During a Survivor Panel for EW, Probst, who is also the showrunner, actually revealed his favorite winner: Season 26's John Cochran. But he also shared his picks for the contestants that have played  the best game, which were Parvati Shallow and Rob Mariano.

And during a Reddit AMA, he revealed his least favorite Survivor twist ever: The Medallion of Power. 

"I never liked it," he said. "Didn't speak up loudly enough. We do make mistakes—we know that. But I hope you guys feel that generally we make good decisions. Here's the truth and any show creator will tell you this—you don't know what will work until you try it." 

His pick for the best twist, however, was the famed hidden immunity idol, which was introduced in season 11. 

Celeb Fans Pitch Ideas (and They Are Used!)

Probst revealed to The Hollywood Reporter that the show has actually used several of Tyler Perry's ideas, including the idea of the "special powers" idol that allowed a contestant to use it after the votes were read. (It ended up helping Tony Vlachos secure his win in Cayagan.) People weren't exactly thrilled with that idol though.

Aside from Perry, Jimmy Fallon has also made suggestions, as well as a group of TV showrunners and producers who run a super-fan pool, with a $200 buy-in. The winner gets all the cash, the loser has to pay for a massive dinner at season's end. (It once hit $8,000!)

Consequences Off the Island

Of course, each contestant is asked to sign a contract before filming, entering an agreement with the show and CBS to not "defame, disparage" the series or its producers, along with acknowledging the risks and potential injuries that come with doing Survivor.

But there's also a massive warning—a $5 million one—if you violate the confidentiality agreement a.k.a. spoil the damn thing or even reveal you are a contestant before CBS announces it.  

In season 37, Alec Merlino faced a possible lawsuit when he posted a photo of himself with fellow competitor Kara Kay on Instagram before the season premiered. his caption? "F--k it." While producers didn't ultimately use the NDA clause to slap him with a $5 million penalty, they did disinvite him from the live finale taping.

"It's been the main bone of contention for my entire Survivor experience. The thing is, with social media, I feel things can be misconstrued, but I have nothing but the utmost respect for CBS, for Survivor, for Jeff. I went out there and I had the experience of a lifetime," Alec told EW of the controversy. "That picture, it was unfortunate. I take 100 percent ownership of it. It sucks. But I think things can be misconstrued and that's all I really have to comment about that."

Is it Rigged?

Way back in 2001, Stacey Stillman, the third contestant booted off the island in the original Survivor, sued CBS and the show's creator Mark Burnett, claiming he arranged her exit and "orchestrated" the show's outcome. In her lawsuit, she alleged Burnett "improperly abused his relationships with the contestants," and convinced two castaways to change their votes.

At the time, CBS and Burnett call the suit "frivolous and groundless." The network counter-sued for $5 million for violating the contract. (Remember that whole rule about not speaking out against the show?) The case was ultimately settled out of court. 

Love In a Hopeless Place

Many romances have blossomed on Survivor, like its most successful couple, Boston Rob Mariano and wife Amber Brkich, who now have four daughters after falling for each other during All-Stars.

And even Probst unexpectedly found love, as he started dating competitor Julie Berry after production on Survivor: Vanuatu wrapped. They kept their relationship a secret until after Berry's season aired and were pretty serious for a few years before eventually breaking up in 2008.

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