When I visited the set of Survivor Gabon in late June, I learned a lot about why the CBS series remains a strong top-20 show that consistently dominates in its Thursday 8 p.m. timeslot, even if it has steadily lost viewers. Besides a dedicated crew that continues to perfect the art of assembling the series, the show also spends time, money and effort where others don’t, and there’s no better example of that than in the show’s challenges.
Competitive reality shows live and die by the strength of their challenges. Thus, it’s surprising that so many shows have such weak contests. For every Top Chef, which has creative ways to test its contestants’ culinary skills, there seems to be at least twice as many shows with comparatively pathetic challenges, such as CBS’ Big Brother, with its elaborate but over-the-top cheesy and often unfair games.
Most episodes of Survivor feature two competitions: a reward challenge, during which contestants can win luxury items; and an immunity challenge, where the winning team or individual becomes temporarily protected from elimination. The episodes are structured around challenges and the strategizing and social game is often affected by their results.
The first immunity challenge on Survivor Gabon, called ‘Temptation Valley,’ took place in a large, hill-covered, natural amphitheater. For the challenge, six contestants from each team were tethered together with rope and had to run 150 yards up the hill after swimming through a leech-infested swamp and climbing up and over a tall, net-covered A-frame. On the way to the top, they navigated over and under several logs placed in their way, and then had to dig into sand pits with their hands to find three large bags of puzzle pieces.
After another run and another dig – this time underneath a fence – they handed over the puzzle to three other members of their tribe, who assembled it.
I know all this not just because I watched the contestants run it both in person and, in extremely condensed form, on television, but because I ran through all of those obstacles while tethered to five other members of the press. We participated in the challenge’s rehearsal, because all of Survivor‘s challenges are tested more than once before the contestants ever arrive.
Producer John Kirhoffer, who’s worked on Survivor since its first season, leads the team that constructs challenges, and they range from an illustrator to the 18-member Dream Team, a group of 20-something men and women who rehearse challenges, act as stand-ins, and do other challenge-related work.
Kirhoffer’s job starts months before the show is taped. In February, he scouted locations in Gabon from helicopters and vehicles, and back in LA, crafted challenges that took advantage of the landscape. But producers weren’t done yet.
After each challenge is constructed on location, producers first gather for a test run, which features the Dream Team running the challenge (which lacks details like paint) while the production designer, director of photography, a senior producer, assistant directors, Kirhoffer and others watch, noting where they need to make adjustments. We benefited from one of those changes: a rope was stretched across the swamp for safety, ensuring no one would be pulled under water by others on their team.
Later, everyone rehearses: host Jeff Probst offers commentary, the cameras film, and producers watch as if the Dream Team’s run was the actual challenge, so everyone will know what, roughly, they can expect. There are no re-takes on Survivor challenges, and they look as good as they do because everyone involved – except the contestants – has done it before.
‘Testing and rehearsing is crucial because even if you think it’s an easy, easy challenge, there’s something you’re overlooking. I guarantee it,’ Kirhoffer told me, which makes it surprising that not all shows bother to see if their creations will work.
‘That’s where a lot of other shows that I’ve worked on, and I’ve had friends that work on, fall short sometimes with their challenges, is they don’t budget enough time and money into testing and rehearsing. When I get called to consult on something else, I’m like: Who’s testing these?’ he said.
Immediately after the challenge – I was bleeding from several scrapes and scratches, and rather dirty, covered in sand – Kirhoffer and other producers talked about what they’d just seen. Probst, for example, suggested a way to orient the puzzle so the cameras could see it best.
The next day, when the actual contestants competed for immunity on the same course, several things had changed: the colorful cloth stretched under the A-frame was gone, the puzzle bags and boards now had numbers (to make assembly slightly easier) and Probst instructed each tribe to start digging for puzzle pieces in the middle of the sand pit, which is advice we could have used, as we fell far behind the Dream Team during the digging portion.
In other words, the press versus Dream Team run was a lot more difficult, which, combined with the knowledge that we helped make better TV, makes our crushing defeat slightly more palatable.
Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred (realityblurred.com) and writes TV criticism for MSNBC.com.