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Ten’s reality veteran sees Australian Survivor as opportunity to do it right, as big name sponsors buy in

An Australian version of Survivor never quite cracked it a decade ago. But Ten has put one of Australia's most experienced reality show producers on the job and three big name sponsors are coming along for the ride. Mumbrella speaks with the man charged with making Australians fall in love with the home-grown version.

When the Ten Network took a deep breath and bought the Australian rights to a local production of Survivor, it turned to one of its most successful reality producers to get the project across the line.

survivor 2Stephen Tate has, to his own surprise, been at the Network for 16 years, and has had a hand in pretty much every reality success story the network has produced. From his early days working alongside then head of programming, David Mott, he helped drive an audience addiction to shows such as Big Brother, MasterChef and X-Factor.

More recently, working with Beverley McGarvey on The Bachelor and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, he has been part of its entertainment resurgence.

Stephen Tate TenTate, head of entertainment and factual programs, was there at the beginning of reality TV as we know it today, working on Seven’s Who Dares Wins created by Becker in the mid 1990s – one of the the precursors to everything that has come since.

But Survivor is a different kettle of fish again for the producer. A show with a huge legacy cultivated over 31 successful seasons in America. A show that has been given the local treatment by both Nine and Seven a decade ago to a mixed reception. And a show that boasts production values easy to afford in a mass market such as the US, but which could challenge a local broadcaster getting its financial house back in order.

“It’s not something we went into lightly,” Tate told Mumbrella.

“We really did our homework before we committed to this. But I have to say that as a producer, it’s a bucket list format, one that I’ve always wanted to work on and it was just the stars aligning to enable us to give it a go.”

Survivor 1

Giving it a go meant it also had to be bankable for the network, and Mumbrella can reveal Hungry Jacks, Medibank’s AHM Health Insurance and Holden have all bought into the show as tier-one sponsors, with Hungry Jacks poised to make Survivor a significant part of its image over coming weeks.

For Tate, his experience across a wide variety of reality formats has helped him craft a show he believes honours the original, but also gives it a unique Australian flavour.

“I think the biggest lessons we have learned along the way with all of those formats is that quality is the most important aspect of what we need to deliver,” he said.

“There is no cutting corners, we need to appoint the very best producers, we need to be really strict in the casting process to make sure that we deliver the characters that are going to populate the show properly.

“We have learned a lot over the years and we have built some pretty amazing relationships with the Australian production community so we can attract the right people to shows.”

Moving from the “as-live” format of I’m a Celebrity, with edits going to air on a daily basis to Survivor, where there is more time and space to perfect the flow of the show brings a different set of pressures, he said.

“I really love the fast-turnaround programming like Big Brother and Celebrity because it’s the best chemistry set you can give a producer to play with. With the longer turn-around programs, the key is to know when to stop because you can keep tweaking right up until the last minute. I guess the art in those sort of shows is knowing when it’s right and leaving it alone.”

Tate has highlighted many of the challenges faced in shooting in Samoa, a destination chosen in part because “it’s not Australia” and also because the US Survivor had shot four series there and so could offer support and advice.

“In a way the contestants had it easy, we were bouncing around Samoa for three-and-a-half to four hours per day in cars, so the travel time between the locations was probably the single biggest challenge,” he said.

“But the actual environment in Samoa. It is paradise but it can turn on you in a second. We contended with earthquakes, storms, lightning, king tides – basically mother nature threw everything at us during the production process.”

Jonathan LaPagliaThe highlight of the show has always been the Tribal Council eliminations. A few short minutes at the end of every episode where the tensions of the preceding days are distilled into fiery confrontations urged on by the manipulative questioning of the show’s US host and executive producer, Jeff Probst. The filming often lasted hours in order to drive contestants to the edge and get the perfect result.

Tate believes Australian Survivor host, Jonathan LaPaglia, has been equal to the task, immersing himself in the role to a level that surprised him.

“We know that’s a crucial part of the format, and yes, we filmed into the wee hours of the morning often,” he said.

“And Jonathan was an absolute revelation because when we first approached him it was one of these situations where it was kind of a lateral thought. We made the approach to his Australian management and they discussed it with him and he, off his own bat, shot a test in his own lounge room in LA and sent it to us. We looked at it and we just knew we had our host straight away.”

LaPaglia is a fan and a meeting with Probst went well, but Tate says the actor has managed to make the show his own, and he shines during the Tribal Councils.

“He had the social game in his head so he knows all of the twists and turns. He asks a question and it seems like it is coming from a place of innocence, but he absolutely knows what kind of answer he is after.”

Survivor castThe 15,000 entries the show received from potential contestants has been well publicised, but Tate is also full of praise for Endemol Shine Australia for sifting through the applicants to find a final cast that would not let the format or the audience down.

“I have to say they assembled the best reality cast I have seen in my career and I don’t say that lightly,” he said.

“This cast just popped all the way through the run and it’s a very unpredictable show. You think you’ve got a handle on who’s going to make it to the end and then it turns all Game of Thrones on you and the hero dies.

“I’m really proud of how this cast took to this game.”

Critics of the previous two attempts to Australianise the format said that Aussies simply didn’t have the self-belief and bravado to sustain the show the way Americans can.

Yet Tate is generous to the two networks that took on the Survivor challenge before Ten, saying claims they had failed were far from the mark.

“I’ve been asked a couple of times why we did it when it supposedly wasn’t a success on Seven and Nine. I would argue that it was a success previously. It did 1.6m and 1.4m average across those two series and they are really respectable numbers. So I think that bodes well for the series.”

Missing in 2002 and 2006 is one other element that has become crucial to the success of reality TV in all its forms – the second screen and social media.

“Social was part of how we managed to successfully get this show commissioned because this will be the first time that Australia has been able to talk about Survivor in production on social platforms. So we are really excited to see how that’s  going to roll out,” he said.

At the end of the day, though, for Ten, it’s about revenue and Tate is also happy with what the show has managed to achieve even before going to air.

“We actually have three tier one sponsors which for a first season is extraordinary, particularly in the current market. It’s launching with very strong commercial support and as you have seen from the US series it is a very malleable format and there is a lot that we can do in show and around the show and the IP extensions are fantastic.”

Hungry Jacks is making the most of the IP with the show set to be embedded in the brand’s marketing and point of sale over coming weeks, while both AHM and Holden have integrated themselves tightly into the show.

Ten has taken on one of the most successful franchises on the planet where its rivals have failed. As Probst himself might say of Aussie broadcasting – “You’ve been knocked down twice, but you keep coming back? The Tribe’s verdict awaits”.

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