Twenty new "castaways" will compete on Survivor: Samoa, which debuts Thursday on CBS. Though each Survivor "challenge" lasts just a moment or two on TV, hours of footage, weeks of preparation and months of planning go into each contest.
Twenty new "castaways" will compete on Survivor: Samoa, which debuts Thursday on CBS. Though each Survivor "challenge" lasts just a moment or two on TV, hours of footage, weeks of preparation and months of planning go into each contest. Monty Brinton/CBS
In the nine years and 19 — yes, 19 — seasons Survivor has been on air, "challenges" have become a hallmark of the Emmy Award-winning CBS show. Survivor: Samoa debuts on Thursday with dramatic backdrops of thundering waterfalls, lush rain forests, and wide, sandy beaches. Survivor challenges can be giant obstacle courses, violent brawls, complex puzzles or blindfolded mazes. Though the contests may look relatively simple, they are the product of months of careful planning.
"These are games that look kind of basic," says Survivor host Jeff Probst. "They're made from wood, and there's some paint on them ... But when you add $1 million, and you say, 'You're Tribe Red and you're Tribe Black,' instantly you have adversaries, and you have something to fight for."
The winners get prizes or immunity from being voted off the island. Probst says the challenges are also key to creating suspense and drama.
Preparation for the challenges begins months before the show tapes, when challenge producer John Kirhoffer and his team travel to the show's destination to scout locations from a helicopter. Back in their Los Angeles office, they brainstorm ideas, sketch concepts and create mock-ups. Kirhoffer is a master at designing physical challenges that encourage emotional reactions from the survivors.
The Samoan Islands, which lie about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, are the next location for Survivor, CBS's Emmy Award-winning reality series.
The Samoan Islands, which lie about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, are the next location for Survivor, CBS's Emmy Award-winning reality series. Monty Brinton/CBS
"John looks like a camp counselor," says Dave Burris, the show's executive producer. "He acts like a camp counselor with sort of a sadistic streak, but he's actually sort of a genius."
Weeks before shooting started, the art department went to Samoa and set up near a rocky beach that's surrounded by jungle. It's like a rugged Santa's workshop: There are shelves lined with paint, piles of lumber, and carpenters sweat under nearby tents. Most supplies and materials are shipped in, but some are bought locally.
The first immunity challenge of Survivor: Samoa was designed to be epic, yet simple. The contestants climb over a wall — pulling a chest after them — and then use the parts of the chest to solve a puzzle. After the prep crew builds, paints and assembles the walls, ramp and chest, they run through the challenge themselves — rehearsing the whole course to make sure it works. For this challenge, the producers make the chest heavier to make the contest harder — but when they find it too heavy to handle, they return to the lighter weight.
When the contestants finally show up on the third day of production, they stare at what the challenge team has created for them. The course is set up between coconut palm trees wrapped in bright yellow and purple fabric. Probst explains the challenge briefly, and then the cameras are turned off.
The tribes are separated, and Probst has a long, private conversation with each tribe as they walk along the course.
"We let them ask any questions they have," he explains. "And side by side with me is John Kirhoffer, the challenge producer, making sure I'm not doing something wrong or forgetting something. CBS standards and practices person is also there. His job is to make sure that I say the same thing to both tribes."
"We build everything out here," says Jeff Probst, host of Survivor: Samoa. "That's why it looks so good, and that's why it feels so good."
"We build everything out here," says Jeff Probst, host of Survivor: Samoa. "That's why it looks so good, and that's why it feels so good." Monty Brinton/CBS
CBS standards and practices must make sure that one tribe doesn't have an advantage over another because of something Probst told them.
Finally, after months of planning, five weeks of construction, and the work of more than 50 people, the survivors are ready to go. It takes them about half an hour to run the challenge, but on TV it takes just two minutes.
Probst says that the hard work, extensive planning, and attention to detail on the challenges are a critical part of Survivor's success.
"We have money to make these things look good," Probst says. "I watch some of these other reality shows and think they're doing it literally with some tin cans and some string. And it just doesn't work. They're in a parking lot, and there's a little red flag they got at Home Depot. No, we build everything out here. And that's why it looks so good, and that's why it feels so good."
After the contestants run two challenges in the first Samoa episode on Thursday, they'll have about two dozen more to go in Survivor's 19th season.