Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: How has Survivor managed to last so long when so many other reality TV competitions have come and gone? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.
The genius of Survivor is that it’s self-reflexive. It’s ever evolving. This newest season, contestants explain it best when they describe the Old School way of playing and the New School way of playing.
In the beginning, contestants just had to be the strongest and the best and be likeable and they’d win. As the game progressed, however, people began to see the stronger, more likeable players as threats and they adjusted their game accordingly. It’s not uncommon now to take unlikeable players to the end just to give yourself a better shot at winning.
The first thing you have to do now in Survivor is to stay a step ahead without letting anyone know that you are a step ahead. In the beginning of the show, you could strategize, form alliances, make a game plan, and as long as your team stuck to their guns, there’s a good chance things would work out. Now that the game has been on for so long, people know this strategy. Strategize too much and you’re out. Don’t strategize enough, you’re a pawn in someone else’s game and don’t have much of an argument for winning. It’s a fine line.
Another component to the game is to always be thinking about the jury. You have to vote people off, but not in a way that makes them so mad that they won’t vote for you in the end. This has always been easy – play nice, but play. Now that people have been watching the show for so long the dynamic has changed. People on the jury now respect great plays and cut-throat moves. Being nice is no longer enough, you also have to be ruthless. Again, a fine line.
Being tough in challenges in the beginning was a benefit, people want people on their team who will help them win. Now that the show’s been on for so long, being strong is often seen as a threat, because once you get to the end and it’s all about individual immunity, you can beat the weaker players. It’s no wonder that strong, young men rarely make it in this game. They’ll likely win if you let them get to the end and people tend to like them (hello white male privilege – I’m looking at you Malcolm, Joe, Oscar…) and want to vote for them. It is also funny to me when the young, strong guys try to form an alliance together because they know they are targets. Everyone wants to take them down! It never works.
The genius of the show is that it evolves. The great thing about the newer seasons is that they often cast fans of the show. Fans of the show know how the game works, they know all the basic strategies and are familiar with all of the casted characters. They know what to expect and what maneuvers are coming. This makes the show great after thirty seasons because the players are constantly having to adjust their game play. They can try to predict what’s coming game wise, but you also have to be the one to predict what the predictors are predicting, and on and on and on. At a certain point the basic game play becomes irrelevant and a good amount of chance and luck come into play. And as always, a strong alliance is key. Remember when Rob came back and had that rock solid alliance that he rode on until the end and won? Even great alliances can fail, you don’t want to be seen as the ringleader walking your victory lap too soon, someone will want to take you down and your alliance will crumble.
The show is genius in the fact that the people playing were once watching and you can never quite cast the same group of people twice. You need to have people that are physically strong, mentally capable and know how to work people. This is a rare feat and it’s interesting to watch so many people try to master the game.