Survivor is Getting Bigger and (Hopefully) Better

The reality show Survivor premiered its 45th season on September 27, 2023, and with it, episode lengths went from sixty minutes to ninety minutes.  This is a change that many fans (myself included) have been requesting for years.  For the uninitiated though, it may seem bizarre that a show is increasing its runtime by fifty percent after twenty three years and forty four seasons on the air.  How, after all this time, can this show still be such a cultural phenomenon that it’s actually getting bigger?  Why do fans still want more?  To understand that, you first have to understand what the show is and what it means to its players and its fans.

Survivor has a simple premise.  A group of strangers are put on a beach, and are given the bare minimum materials to survive (a machete, a pot, and flint).  They then compete in challenges for food and/or immunity.  These can be simple, like keeping your hand on an idol the longest, or they can be elaborate, like racing through a maze and retrieving bags of puzzle pieces blindfolded before taking off the blindfold to solve your puzzle at the end of the maze.  Afterwards they go to tribal council where they must vote one of their fellow players off the island.  This continues until only three players are left, at which point a jury of their evicted peers will decide who is worthy of the title of “Sole Survivor,” and the one million dollar grand prize.  

While the premise of the show is simple, the intrigue comes in the execution.  The loose and open format of the game lends itself to many different styles of play.  Some players grab a majority alliance at the very beginning and ride it all the way to a win, some rely on their ability to win immunity challenges to get to the end, and others fly under the radar only to cut the most powerful player at the very end.  The possibilities are endless, ensuring that no two seasons will ever play out the same way.  The game becomes even more complex when you factor in all of the advantages hidden on the island for players to find.  There are many different advantages, ranging from an extra vote that can be cast at tribal council to the hidden immunity idol, a trinket that when played, negates all votes cast against that player for that tribal council.  

These advantages have seen a sharp uptake in quantity and variety during recent years, especially following the pandemic with the 41st season, which was described as the start of “the new era.”  While this influx of advantages presents new and interesting situations, it also makes the new era a little too complicated.  Since season 41, the strategy and decision making of the players has been hard to follow as the editors have to include scenes of all of the advantages being found so the audience is aware of who has what, and what each advantage does.  This has led to less content on the actual strategy and rationale behind players’ decision making, since so much time needs to be spent on them obtaining the advantage(s).  This has also been affecting who we see on the show, as players who find advantages end up with more screen time than players who don’t, even when the latter makes it farther in the game.

This is important because personal and emotional content is what allows the viewers to become invested in the players.  The strategic game element of Survivor can only remain interesting for so long, it’s the human, emotional element that has allowed fans like myself to remain invested long-term.  The first time I felt like Survivor really emotionally hooked me was in season 33 with a player named Adam Klein.  Adam was cast as the typical “nerd,” or “superfan,” archetype, meaning he was scrawny, pale, and claimed to know a lot about the strategy of the game.  What made Adam different from the rest of the players that were casted in this archetype was his personal struggles. At home, Adam’s mom was battling lung cancer.  Week after week, Adam would talk about how much being on the show meant to him because he grew up watching it with his mom, and about how proud he knows she’ll be of him when he gets home.  Adam’s story culminates with him winning the season in a unanimous vote by the jury, and him rushing home to tell his mom he had won just hours before she tragically passed away.

This story struck a chord with me because I had always watched the show with my mom.  She was the one who made me a fan of the show, in fact, she was a fan before I was even born.  She watched it all from the very beginning when it started airing in 2000, and didn’t start watching along with me until I was seven years old in 2010.  I had no clue what was happening in terms of the social strategies and dynamics of the players at that time, but I remember laying in her arms cheering for the players I loved, or cheering when the players I didn’t like were voted out.  I remember crying on her shoulder the first time my favorite got voted out.  I remember the countless bags of microwave popcorn we must’ve gone through.  I remember my mom always telling me I should go on the show when I got older, and now being older and her telling me to apply.   For my mom, Survivor became something to share with the next generation of her family.  For me, it became my favorite show, and my favorite bit of quality time to spend with her.

I saw myself in Adam, and because of that I became a way bigger fan of the show.  If Adam were on a season in the new era though, and he didn’t find any advantages, I likely wouldn’t have had enough time to connect with him as much as I did.  Survivor needs more time for each episode so that they can include the advantage-centered content that has become synonymous with the new era without having to sacrifice the strategic content, or, more importantly, the personal connections forged between viewers and players, which are what make the show go from something interesting to something truly special; something a family can share.  Survivor has had ninety minute premieres in the past, so the effects of this change remain to be seen, but it certainly makes season 45 the most promising season of Survivor in years.