What I Learned About Our Planet By Watching 540 Hours of ‘Survivor’

CBS's 'Survivor' reaches more people than most nature documentaries and uses animals to comment on the human condition.

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May 23 2018, 2:37pm

Image: CBS

I was 10 years old when the reality show Survivor premiered. Now, the show is a stalwart hanger-on with a cult-like following. But back then, it was a national phenomenon. The finale, during which a temporarily clothed Richard Hatch was awarded the $1 million prize following what was potentially the most bitter loser’s speech ever given in human history, drew in 51.7 million viewers on a muggy August night in 2000. The ratings beat the World Series, the NBA finals, and the Grammys. Since that fateful season, I have never missed an episode.

My mother, also a Survivor Superfan (that’s what we’re called on the Survivor blogs) and I have followed every season, obsessively analyzing every game play, every plot twist, trying to predict how one vote will shift the balance of the game or which player will backstab his alliance first. It’s become a defining feature of our relationship. There have been 36 seasons, each with about 15 episodes. After the finale of season 36, which airs Wednesday night, I will have spent 540 hours watching Survivor. And that’s just counting the episodes I only watched once.

Image: CBS

I know that, to those unfamiliar with the show and its frenetic fans, my obsession with Survivor is...perplexing. However, I will gladly extol the virtues of Survivor not only as a masterful class in the art of social manipulation, but also as an unconventional vehicle for communication about the beauty of the natural world, delivering stories featuring remote locations and sometimes rare and endangered species to mass audiences all over the world.

Let me explain this by walking you through one of my favorite episodes from this season, which was filmed in the wet forests and crystal waters of Fiji. Picture a remote, palm-dotted stretch of sand in the setting afternoon sun. It’s just hours before tribal council, where one unlucky castaway will be voted out and forced to leave. The scrambling has begun. A secret alliance of women is plotting an insurrection to vote out one of the strongest players, a cunning furniture designer named Wendell. As the characters scheme to backstab Wendell, the frame snaps to an enormous, shiny spider crawling among the logs in their campsite, unseen by the cast members. Ominous music plays in the background.

The show uses this trope all the time—often set in remote Pacific Islands, the producers are constantly showing footage of wild animals that is not only stunningly shot but also mirrors the action occurring among the characters on screen.

Lee Doig, a senior reality camera operator for the show, told me that the crew is constantly looking for natural analogs to the cast: villains become snakes sliding through the grass or spiders spinning their webs, weak characters become mice, rats, or, worst of all, just a dessicated carcass hanging in the spider’s web.

“One of our most notorious players was Russell Hantz. He was a dominant player who preyed on the weakness of others,” Doig said, referring to a contestant who appeared on three seasons of the show: Survivor: Samoa, Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, and Survivor: Redemption Island. “For a guy like Russell you want something like a praying mantis chopping up ants with its awesome power.”

Image: CBS

Other crew members told me they have used howler monkeys to represent “loudmouth” characters, boa constrictors for sneaky characters, even a curious crab to mimic a nosy eavesdropper. Though the show is now shot mainly on islands in the tropical Pacific, it has featured hundreds of animals from around the world over its nearly two decades in production. Just over the course of (re)binge-watching a few episodes for this story, I saw lizards, fruit bats, peregrine falcons, humpback whales, black reef tip sharks, manta rays, and African elephants. This season, the rare Fiji crested iguana, a critically endangered species, has been playing a starring role.

“I talk to a lot of kids who watch Survivor and one of their favorite parts of the show are the shots of snakes and insects and marine life they’ve never seen before,” Jeff Probst, the dimple-cheeked and ageless host and executive producer of the show, told me in an email while on location shooting the show. “It’s a fun part of the tapestry to introduce our young viewers to new crazy critters.”

Yet wildlife imagery isn’t that hard to find on television these days. Documentaries like BBC’s Planet Earth and Blue Planet (and their many sequels) have brought stunning footage of rare and endangered animals into our homes, spreading conservation messages across the world.

Image: CBS

But the natural footage featured on Survivor serves plays a different role, for an audience that may not always overlap with those that watch Planet Earth. For viewers who watch other primetime hit shows like Dancing with the Stars and The Apprentice, this may be the only wildlife imagery they see on a regular basis. What’s more, at 54.9 years, the average age of CBS’s audience tends to skew slightly older than other primetime networks. Meanwhile, the audience for Planet Earth skews young, racking up record viewers in the 16-34 bracket.

David Attenborough’s recent sequel became the most-watched natural history documentary ever aired, with 12.26 million views for a single episode. Still, that’s only one-fourth of the viewership for the Survivor: Borneo finale. The sheer size of Survivor’s audience gives even the subtlest of messages about the wildlife living in remote corners of the Earth potential to make an impact. For some people, Survivor may be the best we’ve got.

Image: CBS

Of course, as goes for any TV show with a cult following, Survivor has weathered some controversy over the years. There was the disastrous design of Survivor: Cook Islands in 2006, in which castmates were split up by race, as well as the moment that one contestant publicly outed another as transgender last year. Not to mention producer Mark Burnett’s fuzzy relationship to purportedly damaging footage of Donald Trump. But an analysis of the cultural intricacies and human foibles that the show reveals could fill a heavy book (one that I will happily write some day).

For now, I prefer to enjoy the brutal gameplay of Survivor, alongside the incredible natural beauty of these faraway locations.

Now, almost two decades after I first watched the Survivor finale, I am an ecologist studying marine conservation. Has obsessively watching Survivor pushed me toward a career focused on protecting the natural world? Am I insane enough to seriously attribute my life’s passion to watching Survivor? I’m not so sure of the answer, but I think it didn’t hurt.