Editor's Note: Msnbc.com contributor Andy Dehnart traveled to the West African nation of Gabon this summer and interviewed "Survivor" cast, crew and others as the show was setting up for its new season.
When it debuted at the turn of the century, the CBS reality competition series “Survivor” ushered in an era where appearing on television resulted in fame and fortune for unknown, everyday people.
Now, as the show debuts its 17th season on Sept. 25, the series will play a role in the economic future of a little-known African nation where, for 39 days this summer, 18 Americans battled each other and the elements for $1 million.
Gabon, which gained independence from France 48 years ago, is located to the west of the Republic of Congo and is bordered on the north by Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon. Its distinct topography consists of open savanna, which is marked by hills and formations that resemble natural amphitheaters, and dense patches of rainforest, from which wildlife, including forest elephants, venture forth at daybreak and dusk.
The show's presence in Gabon comes at a critical moment for the country, which just six years ago created a system of national parks to protect its largely untouched landscape. That national beauty is reflected in the tagline for “Survivor: Gabon,” “Earth's Last Eden.” Now, the Gabonese government — one of Africa's most rich and stable, thanks to oil and other reserves of natural resources — needs to find ways to make that protected land profitable, introducing ecotourism in place of logging.
As much as “Survivor” is part of that transformation, location is also critical to “Survivor.” With the exception of two seasons filmed in Palau and three seasons filmed in Panama, the production has moved to an entirely new place every year, and it's in part due to these spectacular locations that the show has remained popular.
The series’ first-season finale was watched by more than 51 million people — a total Fox's enormous hit “American Idol” has never even approached. While the CBS series’ ratings have eroded in the eight years since then, both seasons that aired last year were among the top 20 shows in the country.
But the locations still give each season a visual identity and inform the competitions constructed by producers, never mind presenting actual survival challenges for the contestants, from torrential downpours to swarming insects.
Besides making life difficult for the contestants, the locations presents challenges for the actual production itself, which doesn't always tape in such remote locations. This season, those well-publicized issues came from Gabon's isolation and lack of infrastructure, which also present challenges for its development of a tourism-based economy.
Mitigating the show’s impact on the land
Of course, “Survivor” is not just 18 people competing for a prize. It involves a massive crew, from camera operators to producers, cooks to grips, carpenters to housekeepers. They live and work out of a space known as base camp, which in Gabon was established close to the Atlantic Ocean, a two-hour boat ride south from Libreville, the country's capital and only major city.
None of this will ever appear on TV or be visible to the contestants, whose isolated camps were a half-hour to an hour away by car along pre-existing roads that, despite being bumpy, were actually improved by the production crew.
Three days before the game officially began in June, in the large catering tent that sheltered folding tables and chairs where the crew ate their meals, executive producer Doug McCallie told assembled crew members that besides creating a reality television show, “there's something more that we're doing when we come to these places.”
In Gabon, that “something more” happened in part because of Wildlife Conservation Society field biologist Dr. Lee White, who has worked that country for 20 years and has served as a liaison to the production. His work helped convince Gabon President Omar Bongo to create 13 national parks, an act that required paying logging companies more than $30 million but left more than 10 percent of the country protected.
White told the crew they would be “telling the world about the treasures of Gabon ... a country that's been discovered by biologists in the last 10 years” and where “people have evolved in these forests.”
Earlier that day, White said that the base camp's location itself was inhabited up until about 20 years ago, and on and off “for the last 10,000 years or so.”
“(The show is) setting up in a place that has been inhabited actually over many generations and even over hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years,” White said.
“Survivor” will impact the landscape, but not significantly. “It'll take a while for the campsites to grow back,” White said, noting that grass is the main plant that will have to regrow. “They haven't cut any forest to do the show, but there's some erosion to deal with, and so on.”
Gabon's unique topography is actually affected by its inhabitants. “Even though this is a remote, pristine place, there's a long tradition of people living there,” White said. “The fact that we have a mix of forest and savanna is partly due to people. The savanna's grasslands go back about 3,000 years, but they're maintained by fires set by people,” White noted.
Unit production manager Dick Beckett, who is on location for five or six months, acknowledged that while “(the show has) a big footprint ... whatever we bring in, we take out,” Beckett said. “We will not be leaving anything behind — and if we leave it behind as a (donation), it's probably timber that goes to the local villages. In the past, we've built additions to local schools. We've tended to make contributions to communities.”
The production utilizes and shares local resources — if necessary, the show has access to the president's private military hospital. While around 80 shipping containers and 16 tons of air freight were brought in — everything from flat-pack cabins and offices to appliances, never mind the TV production equipment — many supplies are purchased locally, from food to five kilometers of PVC pipe and 15 kilometers of electrical cable.
More significant will be the impact the series will have on the country's economy. “A local labor force is essential,” Beckett said “We just cannot bring in enough people to do the kind of work, especially just the general hard work that people don't often realize (is necessary).”
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Tourism wanted, but not too much
But those are short-term jobs, and once the series gives Gabon its biggest platform yet, the long-term changes will come with many challenges. Among those is skepticism from some Gabonese people.
Their reaction to the parks and plans for ecotourism is “somewhat mixed,” White said, “because they've lived in this lush equatorial forest all their lives next to elephants and gorillas, they think of it, to some extent, as being somewhat primitive. Their idea of advancement is moving to the city and getting a job in an air-conditioned office, and so they don't really understand the psychology of these rich, educated people who come from abroad and who get really excited about something they think of as mundane.”
The government is “basically taking a gamble that the national parks will not only protect Gabon's unique nature, but they'll be able to develop some sort of long-term industry around them,” White said. “And finding an industry that will maintain the environment whilst giving people jobs that they can be proud of is a challenge.”
The plan, he said, is “that the parks can act as a pull to attract people in and therefore foreign exchange, and can create jobs in rural areas which, to some extent, have been neglected in Gabon.”
But Gabon isn't looking to become the next Costa Rica, he said. Instead, the nation is “aiming at high-end” travelers and “definitely (doesn't) want to do mass market tourism.” White says Gabon's objective is 100,000 tourists a year by 2015, up from a tourist base that is now practically negligible.
There's a lot to be done to make that happen, but one of the first steps is simply awareness.
“The great thing about ‘Survivor’ is that it will mean that a lot of people around the world are seeing flashes of Gabon and are talking about Gabon,” White said, “and will actually know that Gabon exists.”
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