As Survivor: Winners at War comes to an end and the series’ 20th anniversary (20th!) is 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.
As a candidate for Manhattan district attorney who can’t currently campaign in person, Eliza Orlins is logging a lot of Zoom hours. But not all of her video chatting time is devoted to fundraising or advocating for criminal justice reform. Before she became a New York City public defender, Orlins appeared on the ninth and 16th seasons of Survivor (Vanuatu and Micronesia), and she’s still an active member of the Survivor veteran commentariat. Last week, she schooled a group of more recent contestants on the way she watches the show.
“I was talking about edgic on a Zoom call with some new-school survivors,” she says. “I was like, ‘You want to hear what a nerd I am? This is what I used to participate in.’ And half of them were like, ‘What’s that?’”
Maybe you’re a little lost too. Edgic, short for “editing and logic,” is the sabermetrics of Survivor, a rigorous, analytical, and often eye-opening approach to classifying every contestant’s onscreen persona and predicting who will win each season of the long-running reality series. It has a history almost as long as the 20-year-old show’s, a formidable corpus of accumulated wisdom, and an enthusiastic online community dedicated to data-gathering and debate. And as Survivor grows more sophisticated, edgic evolves to keep pace.
“For anyone who’s die-hard into Survivor, it’s super interesting to read about how you map a character’s story arc, because seeing how someone gets edited and what that means in terms of their probability of winning, I always found it really fascinating,” Orlins says.
Edgic practitioners try to pull back the curtain that the series’ producers do their best to keep closed. Because shooting for Survivor wraps long before the season starts airing, the show’s editors can craft a compelling and, ideally, surprising story with the end point in mind. From the first episode on, “every single piece of content you get is filtered under the lens of ‘[the producers] know who wins,’” says Dan Kilby, a video editor and movie buff who hosts The Winner’s Edit, an edgic-oriented Survivor podcast. Although part of the producers’ responsibility is keeping multiple sole survivor candidates in play, “It’s in Survivor’s best interest to tell a story that’s going to appeal to a lot of people,” says a Reddit user named Johnny, who created and continues to moderate the edgic subreddit, which boasts more than 3,000 members. “When you do that, inherently you’re going to leave clues to who ends up winning the entire show.”
Edgic devotees see the same footage as every other viewer. But by scrutinizing that content in a way that would be bewildering to casual Survivor fans and internalizing lessons from previous seasons, committed edgicers attempt to come to more accurate conclusions about the competition’s outcome than someone who’s going by gut.
Every edgic convert meets their Morpheus and discovers how deep the rabbit hole goes at a different stage of Survivor fandom. Johnny watched the first season of Survivor live but didn’t get hooked until Season 20. For several more seasons, he watched without any edgic awareness and dabbled in general Reddit discussions, which introduced him to the notion that the eventual winner’s screen time is edited in a consistent and identifiable way.
“I kept hearing about the winner’s edit, the winner’s edit,” he says. “There were these obnoxious people being like, ‘This person doesn’t have the winner’s edit.’ … Anytime someone was portrayed well on the TV show, I would be like, ‘Oh, this person has the winner’s edit.’ Then when they got eliminated, I’d be like, ‘Oh, so much for the winner’s edit.’”
Just as he began to doubt the idea that the winner’s edit could be pinpointed early, his edgic awakening came, courtesy of another poster. “Someone was like, ‘Actually, that’s not the winner’s edit,’” Johnny recalls. “There’s actually this thing called edgic, and it gives you the best key to who actually is having the winner’s edit. Sometimes someone that you think is having the winner’s edit doesn’t actually have it.”
Those incorrect conclusions sometimes stem from misdirects that producers insert to steer viewers toward survivors who are headed for elimination. “The intent for the viewer is to get caught up in that story,” says Clint, an experienced edgicer and the admin of Unspoiled Edgicers Unite, the premiere members-only forum for edgic analysis. “And the edgicer is trying to sit back and look at all these scenes and say, ‘This is a fabrication. This is artificial. This is a fiction. Why are they giving us this fiction? What do these scenes mean together? What is the purpose of this?’”
Clint says edgicers aren’t exactly attempting to outsmart Survivor’s producers at their own game. But they are trying to pick up on patterns that have proved predictive before, some of which touch on narrative truths that extend beyond a single series. “Effectively, it’s dissecting storytelling itself,” says the 24-year-old Kilby, who started watching the show with his family as a young child and says the Survivor intro is one of his oldest memories. “In every story there’s a protagonist, there’s an antagonist, there’s supporting characters, there’s tertiary characters. Basically edgic is taking your intro to narrative class and putting it on this game show.”
According to Zenna, a graphic designer who founded and hosts Unspoiled Edgicers Unite, edgic originated on a forum called Survivor Sucks—essentially the original internet forum for Survivor fandom—during Season 4 in 2002. Its creator was a user who went by KernelQ, a private person whom Clint remembers as part man and part myth. “He was loved because he came up with this concept, and he was very good at protecting it and keeping it on track, and he was also very ego-less,” Clint says. “He did not make himself ‘the leader,’ though he was respected that way.”
Because KernelQ—who, in keeping with his reputation for privacy, didn’t respond to a private message—didn’t exert sole ownership over edgic, the fledgling community quickly grew, became collaborative, and outlived its visionary creator’s active participation. Zenna started overseeing the edgic community’s record-keeping in Season 17, shortly before what she describes as “the really negative years of edgic.” Russell Hantz, the norm-defying chaos agent who made it to the final tribal council in seasons 19 and 20 before his treachery and lack of diplomacy doomed him, posted spoilers for his seasons on Survivor Sucks, and trolls from the spoiler forums infiltrated the edgic section. In response, Zenna started a splinter site where spoilers were strictly prohibited, and the safe space, Unspoiled Edgicers Unite, gradually grew into the flagship forum for edgic and now features more than 2,000 members.
For the first few seasons, edgic was loosely defined and adjusted on the fly, but by Season 9, many of its permanent principles and methods were in place. The goal of edgic was to pick the winner before the “merge,” the point in the season at which survivors from multiple tribes come together as one. After that, survivors are few enough in number that picking the winner isn’t as impressive, and producers start playing tricks to throw viewers—or at least non-edgically inclined viewers—off the scent. “It’s often said that the answer to the winner is in the first half of the season,” Clint says. “Post-merge is full of distraction and false winner’s edits.”
The core of the system is its three-pronged grading system, which edgicers consult after each episode to assess each survivor’s portrayal in terms of rating, tone, and visibility. Each of those categories contains several voting options, which have slowly expanded. When combined, they paint a picture of the cast’s presentation over time, yielding clues about the trajectory of the season.
Rating is the most subtle and contentious category. In any given episode, contestants can be rated as invisible (INV), under the radar (UTR), middle of the road (MOR), complex personality (CP), or over the top (OTT). Some of these classifications are almost self-explanatory: Invisible characters appear in no confessionals; ask no tribal council questions; and receive no SPV, or second-person visibility—commentary by one character about another character. By contrast, over-the-top characters may receive significant screen time, but they’re presented as drama-making, one-dimensional caricatures, such as the hero, the villain, or the buffoon. Although they may play a central role in the episode’s story, their confessionals and SPV reinforce their cartoonish portrayals rather than focusing on strategy.
The less extreme classifications bode better for aspiring sole survivors. Under-the-radar characters are typically low visibility (although low-visibility characters aren’t always UTR). They have some role in the story and may narrate scenes or see some action in confessionals and tribal councils, but they aren’t well-developed. Middle-of-the-road characters tend to play supporting roles, and while they do have some strategy-related moments, their emotional motivation and intellectual reasoning aren’t explained in depth. “Winners are often portrayed as MOR at some point in the story due to the necessity of cooling down, story-wise,” Clint says in the 5,000-plus-word primer that precedes the 240-plus-page (and counting) Unspoiled Edgicers Unite thread set aside for Season 40 edgic discussion. “However, a consistently MOR edit is not always a good thing.”
A “complex personality” classification is the most desirable edgic rating. CP survivors are portrayed as well-rounded personalities and adept strategists. CP characters tend to have high visibility and frequently appear in confessionals. The game is presented from their perspective, and the viewer is clued into their plans, thoughts, and motivations. Winners usually receive CP ratings at several points in the season and are expected to have mostly CP episodes after the merge, although some winners start out under the radar if their strategy calls for avoiding too much early attention.
The next category, tone, captures the episode’s editorial intent, ranging from the rare super negative (NN) and super positive (PP) to the more measured negative, neutral, and positive. (Another option, “mixed,” is reserved for survivors who have notable negative and positive scenes, whereas a neutral contestant has few scenes with either slant.) “In all cases of tone voting, one should be able to cite exactly why they believe there is evidence that the editors advocate a certain perspective,” Clint’s written guide specifies. “‘I got a feeling…’ may be a persuasive argument at times, but will not be as effective as an evidence-based argument.” Evidence of editorial manipulation may take the form of musical cues, unambiguous comments by other survivors or host Jeff Probst, and footage presented to support those comments.
Tone is independent of rating and visibility: While an “invisible” character won’t appear enough to have a tone, any other combination of the three attributes can occur. Most characters are commonly neutral, and while a positive tone is preferred, some amount of negativity isn’t a death knell in a game that often calls for ruthless self-preservation. The challenge for edgicers is maintaining their own neutrality when judging tone: Tone is intended to gauge how characters are presented, which may differ in some cases from how they’re received. Edgicers are expected to set aside their personal preferences and play the part that James Madison once envisioned for government—that of a “disinterested and dispassionate umpire.” (Like government, edgic doesn’t always work out that way.)
The last category, visibility, is the most objective, based on each survivor’s speaking parts in the episode, regardless of complexity or positivity. Visibility is judged on a scale from 1 to 5, and multiple UEU users track and publish visibility metrics—including sentences spoken and confessional and tribal council question counts, which are converted via formulas into “visibility factors” and 1-5 ratings—to help other forum members decide. In the days after each episode, edgicers rewatch, reflect, and cast votes (via Google Forms at r/Edgic or a dedicated, Zenna-owned voting site for registered UEU users, who consider only the edited episodes and disregard any supplementary materials or bonus footage). Their compiled and tabulated ballots produce crowdsourced combinations of rating, tone, and visibility for each survivor in each episode. A character with an over-the-top rating, a positive tone, and visibility of 4, for instance, would receive an OTTP4 designation.
The UEU forum offers a wealth of information about the current season and past seasons, including transcripts of confessionals and tribal councils, visibility charts for each episode, and video compilations for each character. That data allowed the edgic community to confirm previously unsubstantiated beliefs about Survivor, such as the fact that female winners are edited differently and tend to talk about half as much as male winners. But the centerpiece of the archive is a complete collection of color-coded edgic charts for every season—including early seasons that predated edgic, which edgicers subsequently returned to and classified. The chart below is UEU’s breakdown of last year’s Season 39.
Despite edgic’s efforts to codify operations, the process is still somewhat subjective, with a touch of entrails and tea leaves. But although UEU’s charts aren’t identical to those of r/Edgic, there’s typically broad agreement across communities. Like Season 14’s Earl Cole, Season 39 winner Tommy Sheehan was widely seen as an early lock, as evidenced by his consistent CP ratings. Although that season was an edgic success story, the system worked so well that it detracted from the entertainment value, even if it didn’t put a damper on the discussion. “It can sometimes sap the suspense when the winner is really obvious,” says Martin Holmes, who writes edgic analyses at Inside Survivor. “I think Tommy last season was a really obvious winner that edgic had picked up on very early on. But you always get outliers that have a different interpretation, even in the ‘obvious seasons,’ so there is always a debate.”
In a way, then, the Survivor viewers who work hardest to match wits with the producers depend as much as anyone on the producers keeping the outcome unclear. The edgicers go to great lengths to crack the code, but their continued interest in the topic depends in part on their methods not working too well. Although edgic concepts can be applied to any reality program with one winner in which the contest is settled in advance of the season, edgic for non-Survivor series hasn’t caught on to the same extent, which Survivor edgic enthusiasts chalk up to the CBS show’s pioneering popularity and its grandiose, well-structured, and expectation-subverting stories. As Kilby says, “That’s why it’s interesting, is it’s not solved.”
As every edgicer readily admits, edgic isn’t for everyone. Dissecting Survivor on an edgical level requires a commitment that may conflict with the goal of using TV as a relaxing escape. Some edgicers put in 30 minutes a week on top of the time it takes to watch the episodes, and others may invest up to 10 hours. But the curiosity and competitiveness that drives them mirrors the less structured (and equally time-consuming) theorizing that many other TV viewers enjoy.
“It’s not too dissimilar from fans speculating over a scripted show and trying to predict where things are going,” Holmes says. “There isn’t edgic for Better Call Saul; nobody is referring to Kim Wexler as CPP5. But there are foreshadowing and clues of where Kim’s story is heading, and fans love to theorize over it. It’s the same for the stories and castaways on Survivor.” Kilby, a Game of Thrones fan, compares his edgical endeavors to “many drunk nights at the pub, talking about who was going to end up on the Iron Throne.”
Bran Stark’s surprising ascendance is actually consistent with one edgic principle; in edgic, Kilby says, “the start is the most important.” Bran plays a prominent and sympathetic role in the first episode of Thrones, and the same is often true of the eventual Survivor champion. Winners don’t always start in the spotlight, but they rarely make a poor first impression (like, say, Jaime and Cersei) or have an inconsistent tone. If a contestant alternates between hero and villain, it’s a sign that the producers don’t care about the character as much as they would with a winner. “The edit never forgets,” Clint says, invoking an edgic community mantra that he says he coined. “And what that means is, if somebody said something that clanks at the beginning, that you just don’t expect a winner to say or do, if some event happens early on and it’s like, ‘Whoa,’ the edit never forgets that. The viewer might forget it.” For that reason, Johnny says, edgic is “good at predicting the winner, but it’s a lot better at eliminating people from winning.”
In Season 32 (Kaôh Rōng), for example, eventual winner Michele Fitzgerald debuted with a CP2, according to Unspoiled Edgicers Unite, while eventual runner-up Aubry Bracco broke in with an OTTM3—a virtually disqualifying result, considering that winners rarely receive over the top ratings or mixed tones. Although Aubrey racked up a string of CPs later in the season, the edgic damage was done.
“All people who were really into edgic knew Michele was going to win,” Kilby says, while, “the casual community, people who are not into edgic, were super entranced by Aubry, like, ‘How could she possibly lose? She’s so strategically good.’ And I really think it put the community at a little bit of a war, because people were so invested in wanting Aubry to win, and the edgic people were like, ‘No, there’s no chance she’s going to win, because her premiere is bad.’ That alone was enough to discount this entire fan community.”
Similarly, while Russell’s riveting villainy made him a fan favorite and perceived strong contender among casual viewers, his one-note persona—which netted him four OTTN showings in the first five episodes—ruled him out among edgic sharps, who don’t penalize players for being cutthroat but do ding them for a lack of complexity. In baseball terms, Johnny says, Russell “would be the guy with the really high batting average and low on-base percentage.” In the Moneyball analogy, the edgicers are Jonah Hill’s unbiased spreadsheet-sorter, and the casual viewers are the scouts selling jeans. “Sometimes the show gets a little cheesy, and I find that edgic helps … smooth over some of those schmaltzy performances that the editors want to throw in for the regular person,” Zenna says.
At other times, though, that willingness to discount sentiment has come back to bite edgic. In Season 33, Adam Klein wasn’t the consensus edgic favorite because of his perceived poor gameplay, but his story was more of a personal one, revolving around his mother’s battle with cancer. That emotional struggle yielded two over-the-top positive classifications in the final five weeks, but Adam went on to win.
Despite—or at times, because of—their attention to detail and strategy, edgicers are still prone to making mistakes. Sometimes a quiet wild card wins, like Danni Boatwright on Season 11 or Bob Crowley on Season 17. “The seasons that go on tilt, we just try to learn from,” Clint says. And although the wisdom of crowds is one of edgic’s best assets, groupthink is a real risk. “Somebody comes up with a great insight, and everybody goes, ‘Yeah, OK. Yeah, I can see that,’” Clint continues. “And that sometimes moves us toward great success, or a whole lot of us drive right off a cliff, because it was such a great idea, and it was wrong.” As survivors have schooled themselves on strategy and improved at playing the game, the producers have also incorporated new techniques to keep casual viewers and edgicers alike guessing. In Season 28, Holmes says, “Tony’s win in Cagayan effectively broke edgic, as nobody expected a player with that much negativity in their edit to come out on top.” And in Season 38, the first one with the Edge of Extinction twist, Chris Underwood became the first contestant to triumph after being voted out, a massive—though more understandable—edgic upset.
But edgic excels at seeing past superficial differences in how the same behavior is portrayed from season to season. In Season 35, which was won by Ben Driebergen, “the whole season was about how no one could keep a secret, and how it failed them,” Kilby says. Ben, by contrast, kept his idols to himself and survived to the end, demonstrating the value of keeping information under wraps. In the very next season, though, eventual winner Wendell Holland shared his idols and secrets. “Now, the narrative was all about how keeping quiet gets you voted out, and sharing and building a community is the Way You Win,” Kilby continues. Despite that shift, Wendell was still a complex character, and thus a strong edgic contender; the rating system functioned as a kind of context-neutral metric, like a park-adjusted ERA or OPS for a baseball player in a particularly pitcher-friendly park. “Understanding edgic is super important in being able to sift through the distractions the show gives you in service of telling the story of how the winner won,” Kilby says.
Although there’s not much animosity between edgic adherents and non-edgic fans, there’s often a philosophical disconnect between the two tribes, and edgic remains a niche way to watch. “It’s like a black sheep,” Kilby says.
Part of the reason that edgicers remain a minority among fans is the perception of the pastime’s complexity—a plus for a survivor’s edit, but not, perhaps, for a hobby. “I think people are a little overwhelmed, because I do think that the charts can make it look like the strings and pins in the wall kind of thing,” Kilby says. Even though non-edgic fans pay some attention to edits, edgic’s intimidating terminology makes it difficult for edgic and non-edgic followers to conduct conversations, which is what prompted Johnny to start an edgic subreddit separate from the main Survivor subreddit. Some people may overrate edgic’s efficacy and avoid it to preserve the surprise, just as edgicers stay away from spoilers. Others may discount its value because multiple edgicers can interpret a season in different ways, just as some critics of sabermetrics may dismiss wins above replacement because various sites publish different WAR values.
That’s not to say that there’s no common ground among fans of all types. Even edgic diehards can take pleasure in Survivor on a superficial level. “That’s what I enjoy about edgic, is that I can do my little stat-loving part while also analyzing the strategy, while also [saying], ‘Oh, I love this fun character, and I like that they chose to highlight this fun quality of them,’” Kilby says. But the edgically attuned do say they pay closer attention to callbacks and foreshadowing and zone in on confessionals and dialogue more than they did before. Edgic habits are deeply ingrained, even among those who no longer frequent the forums “I cannot actually watch the show and turn off the edgic now,” Zenna says. “It’s automatic.”
One might expect producers to keep a close eye on edgic, if only to mix up their methods and throw the edgicers off the scent. But one former Survivor producer who worked on more than 100 episodes across several seasons says, “Just from my personal experience, it’s nothing anyone working on the show pays attention to.” In a producer roundtable published early this year, multiple producers pooh-poohed the idea that a winner’s edit exists. “It’s a fun game between us and the audience, but they often read more into it than what is actually there,” editor Brian Barefoot said. As Clint acknowledges, “They’re not playing edgic. We are.”
Orlins isn’t the only competitor to investigate edgic—according to Clint, Stephen Fishbach and Deena Bennett have also dropped into the forums—but she says that even among Survivor insiders, awareness of edgic remains very low. Nor does she think her awareness of edgic helped her in her second stint on the show, which was most notable for her attempt to play a stick as an immunity idol (a top-10 Survivor moment). But that didn’t stop her from checking her scores.
“As someone who fancies herself a strategist and someone who’s interested in gaming, I was always very shocked and disappointed,” she says. “I was like ‘What? OTTN? How could that be? How could I be OTTN?’ And it was very funny to track it.” Orlins is hoping to get good ratings at the polls and become the sole survivor of her DA race, but she has at least a little more control of her image as an aspiring prosecutor than she did on reality TV. “In the course of a 42-minute episode, they’re editing down hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage,” she says. “Even if you were to try to adjust based on the edit that you hoped you were going to get, there’s no way to control that.”
However any individual edit ends, edgic veterans value the bonds that they’ve developed with their online co-conspirators, which span nationalities and age groups. “I would guess that we have people in their 60s and 70s playing alongside teenagers, and that they are friends, and that they interact with each other as equals,” Clint says. “We have had people that were terribly sick and in bed, and this was their big outlet. … When they’re on edgic … they are immersed and involved in the community. And that becomes very important for a lot of people.”
But no matter how much they cherish those relationships, they still want to win. On Wednesday, the Season 40 finale will provide the latest test of edgic’s worth. “Non-edgic-following fans might still see the possibility of a winner beyond Tony and Sarah,” Holmes says, but “Ben, Denise, and Michele all have certain flaws in their edits that, edgically speaking, rule them out of contention.” Edgic’s “complex tribe theory” holds that the winner will always come from the tribe portrayed in a more layered, diverse fashion—in this season, the original Dakal tribe—and the Tony/Sarah pairing is another potential tell. “Usually, when they focus on a pair that much, one goes on to win,” Johnny says.
Then again, the producers may deploy a new narrative weapon in the unending battle to disguise the sole survivor. If they do, the edgic community will try not to make the same mistake again. “Edgic has to adjust, and the boundaries of what a winner can and can’t be expected to do or say get stretched, making our game harder and more challenging,” Clint says. “But that’s what we’re here for, the challenge. It makes getting things right all the sweeter.”