“Survivor” has made many changes to its game over the past 30 seasons. Those range from the introduction of the hidden immunity idol to twists such as Redemption Island. The CBS show has cast the same people three or four times, and it has cast people related to returning players.
Now, “Survivor” is about to make its most dramatic casting change in its history: allowing viewers to vote for returning “Survivor” players for one of the two seasons that will air next year.
This takes the show farther down a dangerous path than it has ever gone before.
Here”s how it will work. There is a pool of 40 returning “Survivor” contestants, identified by a “Survivor” spoiler known as Redmond on Twitter, who will be narrowed in half by viewer votes.
They include season-one players such as Kelly Wiglesworth and Greg Buis; season two”s Jeff Varner and Kimmi Kappenberg; and a huge group of people from “Survivor Blood vs. Water,” including Brad Culpepper and Ciera Easten. All have made videos that will be used to appeal to voting viewers.
Little is known about the process or when it will be unveiled, but I”ve learned from someone with knowledge that the current plan is for voting to occur before the end of this season, with the 20 chosen players revealed during the “Survivor Worlds Apart” finale and reunion in May.
This does not quite turn “Survivor” into “American Idol” or “Big Brother” season one, where viewers have power to cut people from the competition. And producers have selected the pool of people, so there are not unlimited options.
Still: I'm both surprised and worried. The cast of a reality show is an incredible variable that even talent competitions that rely on viewer votes don't allow. They narrow the group, and then allow voting. Here, the players will still vote each other out, but we decide who those players are.
How will that affect the game? Perhaps not at all. Fan-favorite returnees have played before, notably in “Fans versus Favorites” season, though they were all selected by production. Then again, having viewer votes as affirmation may give the players an extra shot of confidence. They were chosen; others were not. Of course, everyone playing will have been chosen, so that”s a pretty equal playing field.
“Survivor” is a show that takes risks, and I always appreciate that over stagnation. Borrowing “The Amazing Race”'s casting twist for “Survivor Blood vs. Water” worked quite well. (The second attempt at a blood versus water season, last fall, did not go as well at all.)
Do we want the show to be run by viewers? I don't think so. As a “Survivor” fan, I have been invested in the show, its players, and its game play for 15 years. During that time, I would not have voted for Russell Hantz to return to the show. But I recognize that his second appearance, on “Survivor Heroes vs. Villains,” made for terrific television. I would not have voted for him to return a third time, and I probably should have protested outside CBS” headquarters. Again, though, his appearance was satisfying because he was voted out forever.
During the 15 years I've watched “Survivor,” I have frequently and strongly criticized the producers' decisions and the players' actions. But I also recognize that the on-screen product that inspires my passionate reactions is the work of an incredibly talented team of hundreds of people. I can deconstruct the product that all their work results in, but I know I am not smart enough to do their jobs.I want them to make the best decisions they can for the program, even when I disagree.
Choosing the mix of players for each season is an art and a science, and that is now in the hands of “Survivor” fans who vote. Yes, allowing viewers to choose from a pre-selected pool of people is not conceding the game to the whims of the voting public, but looking at the list of people, it's easy to see how it could go wrong.
With Jeff Probst running “Survivor” as its showrunner, viewers are already affecting the series. There's the famous and mysterious case of Ozzy's return. And last year, 236 people caused memory challenges to return.
Again, though, getting the perfect mix of players – like “Survivor Borneo” had, for example – is not easy. You don't want a season of all the same kind of person or player. Diversity creates better strategy and drama.
It”s so difficult that Probst even admitted that producers have screwed it up. Referring to last fall”s “Survivor San Juan Del Sur,” Probst told EW it “was a mistake” for producers to be “casting to a theme rather than just finding the best people and figuring out what the theme is.” That's why the “collar” theme came from arbitrarily dividing the group into tribes. The people were cast first and the twist decided later. (Despite that, they've ended up with a cast of mostly unlikable players.)
Considering how difficult casting is even for production, it shouldn't be left to chance. Or maybe that just means it is time to try something new.
When it makes this new twist official, “Survivor” will take a bold step in a new direction. It may work well or it may backfire. If I can't rely on the show”s producers to choose the exact cast they think is best, I”ll try to trust that they know what they”re doing by giving viewers this much power.