With Survivor: Winners at War coming to an end and the series’ 20th anniversary (20th!) just weeks away, there’s no better time than now to honor the revolutionary reality TV competition. Welcome to Survivor Week, a celebration of the show’s best moments and characters.
Surrounded by bugs and rats, wretchedly hot and starving, Jenna Lewis spent her first few nights in Borneo lying on the sand and ruing her decision to sign up for a new reality series called Survivor. “We heard we were going to be sleeping in the jungle, but I was a small-town girl and didn’t really know what that meant,” she says. “You can’t imagine the misery.”
On her sixth night in Borneo, Lewis and her seven tribemates were instructed to grab their meager belongings and start walking. They had just lost their first immunity challenge, and now it was time to visit something called tribal council. As she understood it, the tribe would deliberate for a few minutes and then vote out a player. The early consensus was that the group’s eldest member, contractor B.B. Andersen, needed the heave-ho. Still, she wasn’t prepared for the experience of getting mic’d up, banging a gong, and walking onto a set complete with tree stumps made into seats, a bonfire, and a trunk overflowing with fake cash.
“The whole thing was so surreal!” she says. “Here we are thinking that we’re going to die slowly on this beach and then we get to something out of The Jungle Book.” Host Jeff Probst stood in front of them at the second tribal council in Survivor history and went through a number of beats that are familiar to audiences today. He explained that fire represents life on the island and asked pressing questions as he tried in vain to maintain decorum. Then the contestants walked over to the voting booth and did something that never happened at a tribal council again: They wrote down Probst’s name on the parchment.
“We were a jovial, fun-loving tribe and thought it would be funny if we wrote Jeff’s name,” she says. “We got through about three votes before production stopped and someone talked to Jeff.”
Unamused, Probst dressed down the group and implored them to take the process more seriously. They abided, and shortly after, Andersen was eliminated. Tribal council remains Survivor’s greatest invention—and one of the few elements of the show that hasn’t changed. Twenty years and 40 seasons later, the ritual of sending a player home at tribal council has become the bedrock of the entire series.
When Lewis returned to the beach that night, the realization sunk in: “We were one person short. And then we lost another challenge and the weight of what was happening started to carry on us. We did take it seriously. We did not want to go to tribal council.”
Since then, tribal council has invoked fear in virtually every Survivor contestant. Go to “tribal,” and there’s a solid chance you could be the victim of a blindside or learn you’re on the wrong side of a secret alliance. Maybe you’ll waste your hard-earned hidden immunity idol or play it for someone else for naught. Or, gulp, Probst will call you out on the cocky smirk you’re trying to conceal in the pouring rain. And even though you’ve already spent the $1 million a dozen times in your head, there he is, snuffing your torch and uttering a phrase that long ago became part of the pop cultural vernacular: The tribe has spoken.
“It’s funny because you know it’s coming, your mind is racing and there’s still a part of you hoping that he’ll say something like ‘We’re not going to do this today!’” says Gervase Peterson, another Borneo alum (who later returned for 2013’s Blood vs. Water). “But then he just puts it out and that’s it. You’re done. It sucks.”
That’s why tribal council also serves as a reliable North Star for Survivor fans who have tuned in since Lewis roasted rats on the beach in her pink bikini. For an ever-changing “new school” game that prides itself on jaw-dropping twists—a series conceived in the last century can’t afford to collect dust—the tribal council format has remained intact. No matter what craziness transpired in an episode’s first 45 minutes, viewers can count on seeing the contestants stew on those stumps as Probst plays the role of quizmaster/psychologist/director/Oprah. Ominous piped-in music? Check. Appropriate mood lighting? Always. A look of forlorn resignation from the newly ousted contestant? Obviously. (Well, unless a player is being bounced to the Edge of Extinction with a chance to return to the game. But that’s a hot topic for another story.)
The confluence of factors has always made for riveting television, from Sue Hawk’s “Rat and Snake” speech in Season 1 to Erik Reichenbach giving away his immunity idol necklace to a rival in Season 16’s Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites to Denise Stapley two-timing Sandra Diaz-Twine in the most recent season, Winners at War. When deeply concerned Game Changers contestants jumped to comfort contestant Zeke Smith—who a rival announced was transgender without prior consent—the worst and best of humanity was on display in a single uninterrupted scene.
“Tribal council has largely remained unchanged over 20 years because it works perfectly,” says executive producer Mark Burnett over email. “Even with the addition of different kinds of immunities and game play, it continues to increase attention and uncertainty about Survivor’s skill as they come knowing they may be leaving the show that very night.”
It is a little goofy if you think about it: tiki torches and fire represent life? But it takes a TV producer mastermind to create a ceremony recognizable enough in the public consciousness to be parodied by the likes of The Office, The Simpsons, 30 Rock (yeah, MILF Island!), House, and Saturday Night Live. Enter Burnett, a former British paratrooper who successfully pitched his first American series to CBS in 1999. As he explains it, each Survivor episode—which spanned three production days—had to culminate in a special ritual in which contestants voted off one of their own.
“I knew I wanted tribal council to be at night and an intimidating/spooky experience,” Burnett says. “Within the creative dramatic flow of the game, this was the moment where the secret vote took place and the best viewer experience was to see the uncertainty on the faces of the Survivors.”
The initial tribal council set was flown in from the United States less than a month before the new contestants arrived. “It was too ‘Flintstones-like,’ so we had to rework it entirely onsite,” says Kelly Van Patter, Survivor’s production designer for its first five seasons. The team’s eight designers scrambled for three weeks to build an organic-looking set that could both embrace local culture and withstand the frequent tropical monsoons in the area.
Van Patter’s team meshed cameras and aluminum-framed lighting grids with local vines and trees. “The goal was to ensure that viewers had no idea there were camera ports and cables and for cast members to have an authentic experience,” she says. There was no roof so players were exposed to the extreme elements. The voting area was placed far enough away so the players couldn’t hear each other, which led to extra suspense. A firepit served as the main source of lighting. “I made sure all the lights were turned away from the set,” Burnett says, “so Survivors could not see any cameras. Lights would have lessened the fear and would have made the viewers feel less engaged.”
The gong, excised in Season 2, was intended to signify that players were about to start a ritual. And that crass trunk of cash? Burnett wanted it front and center. He insisted that players needed to be reminded that they were playing for big money. “We pleaded with him not to do it because it looked too much like a game show,” says Van Patter.
The final piece of the puzzle proved to be the most iconic of all. And for that, the credit goes partly to … Regis Philbin. “He was hosting Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and he had that famous catchphrase, ‘Is that your final answer?’” Probst says. “I felt strongly we needed our own to say as a player was being voted off.”
The creatives spent hours scribbling ideas on a whiteboard at the production base camp. As the first tribal approached, they were still coming up empty. “I will never forget Mark saying with absolute clarity and conviction, ‘OK, here’s what you say. You tell them, ‘Well, obviously, your tribe don’t want you round no more,’” Probst says. The new host begged off and a disappointed Burnett snapped back with a terse reply: “He said ‘I don’t know what to tell you, Jeff. The tribe has spoken.’ And there it was. Four beautiful words.”
A few moments before the ceremony, Burnett and Probst differed once more. “Mark asked me to wear an ear piece that would allow him to talk to me and suggest questions,” he says. “I pushed back. I wanted the opportunity to put myself inside the story and see where it would lead. To his enormous credit, he said yes.”
Probst poked and prodded every three nights for 39 days. The tribes came, saw, discussed, voted, ousted, rinse, repeat. It worked just fine, but it wasn’t much to write home about. That is, until truck driver Susan Hawk stood up at the last tribal council and lashed out at finalists Richard Hatch and Kelly Wiglesworth by comparing the two to a snake and a rat, respectively. At the end of the speech—which was watched live by about 51 million people—she implored the jury members to throw their support to Hatch because it was the way “Mother Nature intended”:
This island is pretty much full of only two things: snakes and rats. And in the end of Mother Nature, we have Richard the snake, who knowingly went after prey, and Kelly, who turned into the rat that ran around like the rats do on this island, trying to run from the snake. I feel we owe it to the island’s spirits that we have learned to come to know to let it be in the end the way that Mother Nature intended it to be. For the snake to eat the rat.
Hatch won by a single vote.
“Nobody saw that speech coming!” says Peterson, who was in the room where it happened. “We were all acting silly and she gave a soliloquy. It cemented the show, and it let future players know that they could really do things on Survivor.”
“You want to know what’s stayed the same about Survivor? We are still freaking out on the inside beforehand.”
Four-time contestant Parvati Shallow is on the phone and she has thoughts about the endurance of tribal council. She’s also in the mood to share a few behind-the-scenes tidbits. That quickie stock footage of torch-carrying players walking in the pitch-black darkness to the set? No more. Everyone is now escorted via a speed boat before getting into a canvas-covered truck for the last leg of the trip. All windows are blacked-out to obscure surroundings. Talking is forbidden until the cameras are turned on. The prolonged tension often leads to gut-churning nerves: “I have to do yoga chants just to avoid having a full-blown panic attack. People are twitching and shaking. I’ve seen players run off and have diarrhea in the bushes.” (She confirms that no one has vomited—yet.)
Once Probst stands at the podium, it’s game on. “The nerves are definitely still running and the adrenaline is spiking, but you have to go in with full armor and a mask,” she says, noting that the absence of distracting crew members on the set amps up the drama. “You only want to reveal the emotions that are helpful to manipulate another person. So you have to pretend you’re furious or angry, but you don’t want to be overtaken because that makes you irrational and you’re done. Then you go to the voting booth and hope you’re right.”
Shallow speaks from experience. She was a part of some of the most memorable tribal councils in show history in the past 14 years and she’s placed the most “correct” votes overall. She’s especially proud of her shining moment in Season 20’s Heroes vs. Villains, when she pulled out two immunity idols and bequeathed them to her allies on the Villains tribe. Hero J.T. Thomas was the hapless victim. “You always have to bring your dagger,” she says, “because you never know what’s going down.”
Or what Probst will pick up on. Even Burnett raves, “he’s taught me a lot over 20 years.” Peterson says he was shocked by how Probst’s prowess had grown in the 13 years between Peterson’s first appearance and his second. “Jeff is totally in control now,” he says. “The first season he was just along for the ride with us. But now he has this authoritative aura. He knows all he has to do is ask the right question and push the right button and people will go at each other.” Shallow’s tip: “Think of him as an ally that you can use to unnerve people. He’s not an omniscient Wizard of Oz character. He’s a key player.”
From a production viewpoint, “he has this ability to nail the content that the show producers need to tell the story in the edit bays,” says Jesse Jensen, a prop master turned executive producer. “He’s so in tune with the game and what is happening on a daily basis. When you watch, it seems so natural but it takes a lot of work to stay on top of everything.”
And Probst does it without too much preparation. Sure, crew members stationed at the beaches give him bullet points—he is an executive producer, after all—but he never monitors daily footage or jots down questions in advance. “I usually have topics I want to explore,” he says. “It’s based on where we are in the game and what has been happening with a tribe or who has an idol or which tribe is low on rice.”
“But as you’ve seen in recent years, what a player says is going to happen when they’re back at camp is not always what ends up happening when they’re at tribal council. And the amount of gameplay that happens from the time they sit down on their stumps to the time they vote can be mind-boggling.”
Probst is referring to a new-ish tribal council phenomenon called a “live tribal,” when players huddle together in clusters and engage in hushed sidebar conversations in the 11th hour. (To be clear, episodes are filmed months in advance and a typical tribal council can last for an hour; only the reading of the winning votes at the reunion is technically live.) The first time this happened—J.T. Thomas leapt from his seat during the third episode of Game Changers in 2016 to tell Brad Culpepper to change his vote—Probst was gobsmacked. Now it’s so de rigueur that a live tribal in the first episode of Winners at War was completely edited out of the broadcast.
“A tribal council is way more dynamic now and way more in the moment,” says Shallow, a Winners at War contestant. She admits that players have mixed feelings on the frantic scurrying: “It’s only helpful if you’re at the bottom of the alliance. In that case, you know you can really throw out some chaos into the situation and shake things up just to see who breaks.”
The OGs who never got a chance to engage in such chaos are stunned by, if not envious of, the theatrics. Lewis: “I can’t keep up with how fast it is now. I never had a tribal council like that! We always knew what was going to happen when we got to the set.” Peterson: “We just assumed that Jeff would kill us if we got out of our seats. It just goes to show you that the contestants are still capable of changing the game.”
In so many ways, the tribal council is Survivor—the ruthless drama and the unforgiving finality of those climactic moments define what so many love about the show as a whole. But the story of the tribal council is also the story of both Survivor’s steadfastness and willingness to adapt. The event has remained largely unchanged from its original form—it’s never broken, so Survivor has never tried to fix it—but like the show itself, there’s never been any hesitation to twist the knife when the opportunity to do so arrives. Twenty years from now—heck, make that five—perhaps the tribal council that we know and depend on will morph into something completely unrecognizable. If it feels right, Probst says, they’ll gladly embrace evolution.
“The basic format of Survivor, in that players must rely on each other while voting each other out, has never changed,” he says. “But within that box you can do whatever you want. I can see a time in the future where tribal council looks and operates very differently. There are lots of creative methods to explore. And if we’re on the air long enough, I would imagine we’ll see some of them come to fruition.”
The rats and snakes, on the other hand, aren’t going anywhere.
Mara Reinstein is a New York City–based film critic and entertainment journalist who contributes to Us Weekly, Billboard, The Cut, HuffPost, and Parade.