“Survivor: All-Stars” is set to preview this Sunday after the Super Bowl on CBS. Producer Mark Burnett hopes that combining the most compelling castaways from past seasons with all new twists and turns will lead to high ratings.
To succeed, he'd do well to take lessons from the past eight seasons — some of which were irresistably watchable, others of which were horribly dull. It's clear upon looking back that the best seasons all had certain things in common.
In order for viewers to tune in and keep watching, a season must have a visually appealing setting, fantastic casting, interesting strategies, and a healthy dose of fortune.
Location, location, location
Location or setting is probably the most overlooked factor in creating a successful season. At first glance, a third season in Africa must have seemed genius. It's the Dark Continent! There are wild animals! It's foreign, exotic, and dangerous!
Consider that in Africa, Kim Johnson was forced to bathe in water contaminated by elephant dung. In the next season, the Marquesas, the tribe went swimming in a waterfall and lagoon. Which would you rather watch?
Setting can also affect viewership because the producers attempt to use the local history and culture to create an overarching theme. In the Pearl Islands, the producers took the opportunity to hammer the pirate theme home. By the end of the season, they were reaching a little bit, but at least it was fun. Cannons! Looting! Plank walking!
In Africa, tribe members visited the nearby villages, which only served to underscore the ridiculousness of a bunch of Americans playing at starvation and poverty when some locals lived that way by necessity.
Who's going to lose it next?
One area where Burnett and his team have always excelled is casting. Burnett manages to find the right mix of people, and slot them into tribes to create drama, but not so much conflict that the tribe members take their eyes off the prize.
Good casting meant that viewers got to see ostensibly normal contestants totally lose it under dire circumstances (Linda Spencer in Africa, Mathew Von Ertfelda in Thailand, Lillian Morris in Pearl Islands).
True friendships were formed, like that between Rodger Bingham and Elisabeth Hasselbeck in Australia. It was entertaining to hope for the downfall of villains like Richard Hatch from Palau Tiga or Jon “Jonny Fairplay” Dalton from Pearl Islands. Viewers tuned in each week to find out if their favorites would prevail, and if their least favorites would get voted out.
Without good casting, viewers don’t invest emotionally in the show’s outcome.
Man with a plan
Tribe strategy can also make or break a season. It’s interesting to watch a plan come together successfully, especially when it starts out as a longshot. Who would have dreamed that Richard Hatch could pull off his "I played the game the best" gambit in the first season?
What ultimately matters to viewers is that a contestant has a strategy, not necessarily a good strategy. Over the seasons, the one thing that has become obvious is that no one strategy will work in all situations — players have to be flexible to make it to the end.
But bad strategies, too, can be fascinating, if only for their train wreck quality. Why would Sean Keniff from Palau Tiga vote alphabetically?
Why would numerous alliances get so cocky that they ensured their own demise? Burton Roberts and Dalton in the Pearl Islands enjoyed a reward dinner and left their female tribemates alone to secure an alliance. Dalton repeatedly expressed the opinion that the women were too stupid to band together, and he was shocked when they did, and voted out Burton at the next tribal council.
Every season, new contestants think that they have the winning strategy, and every season they are proven wrong.
The element of chance
The final element is one that even Burnett cannot control, and that is fortune. He can only set all the other elements in place and hope that something exciting happens.
Burnett couldn't make Richard walk around naked all the time. He didn't tell Jerri to accuse Kel of smuggling in beef jerky. Nor did he make Alicia wave her finger in Kimmi's face, or help Colby win five immunity challenges in a row.
It was fortune that brought the storms that washed away the tribe’s camp and food supply in Australia, and started the fire in the Amazon. These random acts can't be scripted, but they bring viewers back every week.
The upcoming “Survivor: All-Stars” seems like the perfect recipe for great television. These participants have already proven that they are willing to bring the drama, and the non-winners especially all have something to prove.
Even the million-dollar winners will want to show that their victory wasn't a fluke. If fortune smiles upon Mark Burnett once again, it could be the most exciting season yet.
Kim Reed is a freelance writer living in Upstate New York