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Image: "Survivor's" Jeff Probst
Jeffrey R. Staab  /  CBS
Jeff Probst really does "tally the votes," but he gets some help from producers and their all-seeing cameras.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/7/2008 10:01:25 AM ET 2008-10-07T14:01:25
COMMENTARY

Fans of reality TV shows are known for becoming obsessive about their favorite series, and that's absolutely the case for "Survivor." Reality show fans want behind-the-scenes information in part due to curiosity about a show they spend hours watching every season, but also because they're sometimes skeptical about how real these shows actually are.

Here are answers to the most commonly asked questions about the realities of "Survivor. " These answers are based upon my week-long visit to the Western Africa set of "Survivor Gabon." Other seasons filmed in other locations may have slightly different answers, in part because the production changes and evolves, but also because different geographic locations can require slightly different approaches.

Is "Survivor" real?
Yes. Are there parts of the production we don't see on TV, however? Absolutely. Besides having to condense the show from thousands of hours of footage into 13 episodes, a lot is required to produce a TV show. For example, when you watch a challenge, you won't see 75 producers and crew members filming, recording audio, taking notes, and watching the challenge unfold. But based upon my observations, none of what doesn't make it on TV actually affects the game. What you see on TV is nearly always exactly as it happens.

Why does the show cast models or actors or people who've never seen the show?
Because they don't receive enough quality applications. Lynne Spillman, who's in charge of casting for "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race," has said in interviews that the show regularly receives tens of thousands of applications, but most aren't from what the show considers to be good candidates. Thus, the show recruits, often models or actors (dubbed "mactors")although those people still go through the casting process. That's become more common recently; everyone except one person on "Survivor Fiji" was recruited, and while that may give us unmemorable mactors, recruiting has also given us unlikely but popular contestants such as Yau-Man Chan.

Can Survivor cast members bring or wear whatever they want?
No. While cast members bring their own clothes to the location, producers select what they take to camp, ensuring that the cast will be wearing camera-friendly colors. Among those prohibited items include shirts or caps with corporate logos. Selecting clothing also allows producers to make sure not everyone will be wearing, say, green T-shirts. They're also searched to ensure that cast members are not smuggling food, matches, or other items to camp with them or in their belongings.

The show used to regularly feature each contestant's “luxury item,” such as Colby’s large Texas flag that actually helped serve as shelter in the “Outback” season. While the items haven't been featured on the show during recent seasons, cast members do bring comfort or luxury items with them to the location, and the producers do approve those items — and decide whether or not to distribute them sometime during the game (if at all).

What do contestants do all day?
Not much. Periodically, on-site producers pull cast members away from the group to do their confessional interviews. And, of course, the contestants go to challenges on two out of every three days. But beyond that, it's up for them to amuse themselves, whether that means foraging for food, strategizing, or just sitting around and talking.

Do Survivor cast members get personal hygiene items?
Yes and no. They have access to a container with necessary supplies, such as feminine products, birth control, vital medications, contact lens solution, sunscreen, and insect repellent. Otherwise, they're on their own. Contestants don't get razors, toothbrushes, or other conveniences, so if they have bright white teeth or aren't growing body hair, it may be because of tooth whitening or laser hair removal they had done before they left for the show.

Where does the crew live and work?
Living arrangements depend upon the location, and ranges from tents to actual hotels. In Gabon, base camp was a two-hour boat ride from the country's only major city, Libreville. A large part of base camp consisted of a large, temporary tent city, where everyone from producers to host Jeff Probst were living until their prefabricated cabins — which included bathroom facilities — could be assembled nearby. The crew works out of trailers or cargo containers that double as offices, and some offices are prefabricated and assembled on site. Everyone except contestants eats their meals in a large catering tent, which opens as early as 4 a.m. for those who need to be on location first thing.

Are the cast members ever alone?
No. Producers and camera operators stay at their camps all day and all night — in part to make sure they don't miss footage, but also to ensure the cast's safety. They work nearby in off-limits, camouflaged areas known as camera camps, where there are cots, food, and equipment storage. Those camps are very primitive when compared to base camp, however, and tribe camp crews work different shifts, so they return to base camp and are not always living out of the camera camps. At Exile Island (called just Exile in Gabon), a producer with a camera stays with the exiled cast member.

How do contestants get treated for injuries?
On-location producers will mention any concerns to the medical staff, and can call for medics if there's a significant problem. Before and after every challenge, contestants visit individually with the show's medics. But as medic Craig "Squizzy" Taylor told me, "During the game, though, they're playing the game of Survivor for $1 million. So, we try to have as little to do with them as possible." He said that minor injuries are "part of the game." While a few major injuries forced people out of the game last season, nearly all of the (mostly minor) injuries or illnesses treated by medics affect the show's hundreds of crew members, who, of course, greatly outnumber the 18 contestants.

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How do contestants get from tribe camps to challenges and Tribal Council?
Although they are often shown setting off with packs and walking sticks, making it seem as if they traversed miles on foot, those images only show the first or last part of the trip. They're transported. In Gabon, they were driven in vehicles with black plastic covering the windows. That prevents contestants from seeing where they are, and from seeing parts of the production such as base camp. After arriving, they're kept in a waiting area until Jeff Probst calls them in to the challenge, which is what we see on TV. They are not allowed to talk to one another until cameras are rolling either at the challenges or back at camp, ensuring that viewers won't ever miss a critical moment.

Do the contestants get more information than we see on TV about challenges?
Yes. After host Jeff Probst gives the explanation we see on TV, Probst and John Kirhoffer, the leader of the team that constructs all of the show's games, walk through the challenge with each tribe. The tribes can ask questions or strategize during that time, and doing it separately keeps the other tribe from knowing the others' strategy, if they have one. Accompanying them is someone from CBS' standards and practices division, who makes sure that each tribe has the same basic information so that the contest remains fair.

Who demonstrates (and tests) challenges?
The Dream Team, a group of young crew members, many of whom return for future seasons to work with the show in other production jobs. They run through challenges at least twice, including once with the challenge production team to see how it works, and once for a dress rehearsal, when they're filmed as if they were the actual contestants. That gives the crew the chance to practice filming, so they know where they'll need to be or where they can get their best shots. Footage from that dress rehearsal is shown to viewers when Jeff Probst explains the challenge to the cast. Helicopter shots of challenge locations are filmed separately, so that the production part — equipment like cameras and cranes, never mind more than 50 crew members — won't be seen on TV.

The show also occasionally uses the Dream Team as stand-ins in its faraway helicopter shots. If you think about it, that makes sense, since when you see a challenge from above, for example, no cameras or crew are visible, so who is it that's providing all of the footage of the cast running the challenge? In most cases, but not all, shots from a helicopter are filmed afterwards, after the competition is over and the crew has left with their equipment.

That doesn't affect the game in any way, just how it looks on television.

How long does Tribal Council last?
It varies, from 45 minutes to 90 minutes, but it's a lot longer than what we see on TV. However, give thanks that it's edited, since much of the conversation is also kind of boring.

What does Jeff Probst do when he goes to "tally the votes"?
After actually collecting the votes, Jeff consults with producers, who have been watching the voting confessional footage live in a production booth far away from Tribal Council. Based upon what they've seen and the actual outcome of the vote, they decide the order in which Jeff will read the votes aloud, organizing them for maximum drama and selecting which contestants' votes will be shown on TV. That's why the votes Jeff reveals first are the ones viewers have already seen.

Where do cast members go once they're voted out?
To Ponderosa, a nearby camp or facility. Those who don't make the jury typically leave together and stay elsewhere until the end of the game, while those who are on the jury remain at Ponderosa and on location, so they can attend Tribal Council every third day. CBS now airs an online-only series that follows life at Ponderosa, if you're curious about what happens there.

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