The tribe has spoken: Why Ten thinks there’s still plenty of life in Survivor

Ahead of tonight’s Australian Survivor premiere, Mumbrella’s Hannah Blackiston speaks with executive producer and Ten head of entertainment and factual programming, Stephen Tate, about the decision to use the Champions vs Contenders format for a second year and why viewers still love the game of Survivor.

Before launching into this article, it’s important to note that I am a diehard Survivor fan. And it was my love for the show that informed my trepidation when Ten announced it was bringing the format back for 2016, after Nine took a run at it in 2002 and Seven in 2006. There’s a reason neither of those iterations made it past a single season. Somehow they didn’t manage to capture the magic of the American version, which has run for an insane 38 seasons with iconic host Jeff Probst at the helm.

But I, along with many Australian fans, needn’t have worried. The show was different when it came back in 2016, more aligned to the beliefs and values of the format. With Jonathan LaPaglia in the hosting role, the show hit the ground running, pulling 1.082m for its first finale, with Kristie Bennett taking the crown after a nail-biting final vote.

The 2019 Australian Survivor tribe

Last year, the show took another turn. It unveiled the Champions vs Contenders format. This gave Ten a couple of advantages. Firstly, it was able to add some star power to the season, and secondly, the power dynamic between people who are already at the top of their respective games and the ‘contenders’ added another layer to an already tense competition. The final episode drew 877,000 metro viewers, who watched Olympic swimmer Shane Gould become the oldest person to ever win the program, a seemingly underdog victory over high-profile barrister (and incredible competitor) Sharn Coombes. Really, we should have seen it coming. She did warn us that nobody fucks with Shane Gould.

Champions vs Contenders

So did Ten and Endemol Shine set out to make Champions vs Contenders 2.0 for 2019? No, says Tate. They were just overwhelmed with how many people wanted the format during the casting process.

“What we noticed was that the candidates we were casting this year felt they could really give it a red-hot go. They felt like they wanted retribution. So it seemed like a very natural thing, to do a chapter two and see if the contenders could really bring it this year,” says Tate.

“I managed to go out on some of the casting days and you could see the spark in the contenders’ eyes, they really wanted the opportunity to right the wrongs of last season.”

Gould taking the win in 2018

Not only do the contenders want retribution, but Tate hints that they might get it this year, with both he and LaPaglia saying the competition is there from day one.

This year the two teams are very matched, promises Tate, in strength but also in strategy. Retired AFL player Shaun Hampson has been named for the contenders’ side (he himself cited a ‘lack of success’ in his career as the reason he didn’t make the champions), police officer Hannah Pentreath will be pretending to be a hairdresser (we’ve seen that move before, when accounting and marketing grad Henry tried to pass himself off as a yoga teacher, something which worked hilariously well despite his talents ending at Downward Dog), and Sarah Ayles, who survived the Sri Lankan Boxing Day tsunami, are all in the lineup, alongside an ice-cream maker, and a VIP gaming manager.

The tribe has spoken

Tate is as big a fan as any of the show, and tells me it was a ‘bucket list item’ to work on. He says he’s never worked on a show where the crew all big fans too, and that every day on set involved a lot of catching up about where the game was up to and sharing excitement over the various twists and turns.

“For me it was always a bucket list format to get to work on, so it’s a real privilege to be a small part of the team. The format really captures your imagination at every level. I’ve never worked on a show where there are so many fans in the crew, at every level, from the producers to the runners to the cinematographer, to catering. Even Jonathan’s style team. They all know the game inside out and it’s fascinating. We all get wrapped up in it in a way that doesn’t happen on other franchises.”

The show has been supported beyond the fans too. It won Most Outstanding Reality Program at the 2019 Logies and Best Direction in a Television Light Entertainment, Lifestyle Or Reality Series at the 2017 AACTA Awards.

With the show such a well-known format now, almost everyone who takes part has an idea of how they want to play the game. The bios Ten has released of the contenders all include a couple of lines about their strategy – “He wants to be the biggest villain Survivor has ever seen” or “She’s going to align herself with people who will be easy to beat in a physical challenge”. But what makes the show good is that most of that never matters. Russell Hantz famously entered last season after much success on the US version and left first, holding immunity idols.

“When we’re casting, we’re casting people who know and want to play the game of Survivor. Everyone is fans of the game and they want to compete,” says Tate.

“This year we’ve upped the ante and we would hope the Survivor fans agree with that. Both tribes really hit the beach running this year, there are no passengers. We make it through to the end and you believe that everyone who is there really deserves to be there.”

Jonathan LaPaglia Photo: Nigel Wright

Outwit, Outplay and Outlast

“The most successful reality franchises in the world have a core premise, something universal. In Survivor, it’s something primal. We all play the game of Survivor every day of our lives. We play social games, physical games, in our workplace, in our family lives, in our love lives. That’s why it’s the greatest game on Earth,” says Tate.

Ten likes to champion its programming as water-cooler content. The Bachelor launched a thousand recaps, Masterchef generates plenty of social commentary, but Australian Survivor is one of the key programs that has a whole life online. Tate will be watching that closely when the show premieres tonight, from the moment it kicks off.

“I’m very excited about the first few minutes, they’re absolutely epic. I can’t wait for the fans’ reaction. It’s up there with the opening of any feature film, it’s beautifully shot and really well crafted by the team at Endemol Shine. I’m really excited to see the reaction. And the contenders come out of the blocks really strong, the team of champions is really cohesive, they club together in a very unique way. The intrigue is there right from the start.”


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