Behind the Scenes Secrets About Reality TV Show Survivor That Showrunners Don’t Want You To Know

Emma Smith | Thu May 18 2023

Survival reality competition Survivor has been on our little screens since May 2000 and now boasts a whopping 44 seasons. With over 640 episodes and 63 Emmy Award nominations, the CBS series has captured audiences with its physical challenges, mental tests, and endurance tasks. Only one contestant can survive long enough to be titled the “Sole Survivor” of the show.

But fans of the show know little about what really goes on behind the scenes. The showrunners make some questionable compromises and have more than a few tricks up their sleeve for the sake of good TV, and we’re lifting the lid on all of them. Find out what secrets the producers don’t want you to know about the hit reality show.

The Show Isn’t Above Filming the Contestants When They Shower

Signing up to be a contestant on this show means you have to sign away your rights to privacy, it seems. The island castaways are supposed to be filmed at all hours of the day, 24/7, no matter what they’re doing. So when they need to use the toilet or have a shower, they have to be ok with everything being caught on camera.

Allegedly, the island contestants have to sign away their rights to privacy, which includes allowing the show to film them when they’re completely in the nude! That doesn’t mean that they can broadcast that footage, of course, but that might not be much of a comfort. Who’s to say how long the network is allowed to hold onto that footage?

The Show’s “No Toothbrush” Rule Can Leave Contestants With Serious Dental Issues

Not being able to use a toothbrush during your stay on the island would be reason enough not to join the cast of contestants. But regardless of this rule, many sign up for the chance to be crowned the “Sole Survivor” of the season. Simply put, contestants are not allowed to bring any kind of toothbrush or tooth-cleaning device with them for their duration on the show.

But it’s up to the contestants to try and fashion some kind of tooth-cleaning device for themselves from bits of bamboo found in the wild. It’s something, but it isn’t usually that effective and can lead to serious dental problems down the line. As former contestant David Wright once said, “Obviously see a dentist the second you get back to civilization.”

Sometimes Contestants Are Asked To Reenact a Scene For Better Camera Angles

People are always wondering how much of a reality TV show is scripted. The truth is, it depends on the show how involved they want to be in orchestrating situations. When it comes to Survivor, some of the reality moments don’ occur as naturally as they would lead us to believe. And it’s as good as confirmed by one of the guys at the top.

Executive producer Mark Burnett told Reuters, “This is not a documentary,” when explaining that production sometimes asks the contestants to reenact a scene if necessary. Apparently, it’s usually so that the camera crew can tape the moment from different angles and therefore provide the viewer with the best experience possible.

Body Doubles Are Used To Replace the Contestants In All-Important Shots

You may not have realized that every Survivor contestant is actually paired up with their very own body double. It’s not too dissimilar from actors starring in action, as sometimes the actors will need to step aside and let a more seasoned professional make the shot. That being said, a body double on Survivor isn’t supposed to be doing stunts that the contestants aren’t doing themselves.

In the case of Survivor, body doubles are used for those moments that the camera crew failed to capture with the real contestants. If they didn’t manage to film a crucial moment, they would ask a contestant’s body double to recreate the action. Sometimes, the body double allows the team to get an even better shot than they would have done with the actual contestant.

If Contestants Breach Their NDAs They Could Be Sued For Millions of Dollars

Even when you’re out of the show, there are reasons why you may not feel all that free. For instance, you can’t talk to the media about your experiences on the show before the season has aired, and you will have had to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before taking part, making it almost impossible to lift the lid.

Athlete and actor Alec Merlino, who appeared on the 37th season in 2018, learned his lesson when he shared a photo of himself with another contestant on his Instagram account. The premiere of season 37 was yet to air, and he was subsequently punished by the network for breaking their rule. They took away his right to attend the grand finale, but they could have sued him in court for millions of dollars.

Disobeying the Production Crew Isn’t Worth the “Hell” They Rain on You

As a contestant, you’re going to run into enough challenges against your fellow island castaways. The least you can do is try to make your life a little easier by not disobeying the production crew. Apparently, if you get in someone’s bad books, the crew aren’t above personally punishing you for it, according to one previous contestant anyway.

Former island contestant Malcolm Freberg once revealed that the production crew will “will make your life hell if you’re constantly breaking the rules.” Presenter Jeff Probst has been known to give a disobedient contestant an ear full, and punishments involving food have been known to take place.

Every Contestant Gets Money, With Winners Bagging a Generous Prize Sum

If you happen to win the season and get crowned the “Sole Survivor,” you have a handsome prize sum waiting for you to reward you for your achievement. Along with recognition as the last one standing, the winner is rewarded $1 million for them to spend as they wish. Not to mention, they’ll have plenty of opportunities upon leaving the show to earn more money as their fame grows.

And the other contestants of the show don’t walk away empty-handed. The second-to-last contestant is said to take home $100,000, and even the first contestant to leave the process walks away with something. They can expect $12,500 for their efforts, according to previous contestant Jonny Fairplay. If you end up getting invited to the grand finale, apparently, the network doubles your figure.

Contestants Are Only Allowed To Bring With Them a Small Handheld Item of Luggage

A contestant is expected to be on the island for a maximum of 39 days. But they’re not allowed to bring much luggage with them – they are allowed only one handheld travel bag for the entire duration of their stay. Interestingly, the producers actually go through their personal belonging before the contestants are allowed to enter the campsite, just to make sure they’ve kept within the rules.

Items like everyday toiletries, hairbrushes and toothbrushes are banned, as are shaving razors. The few things that a contestant can bring with them are labeled as “luxury items,” despite the fact that they are usually the most basic essentials. As it turns out, strict rules also extend to the clothes that contestants are allowed to wear.

Producers Have Strict Rules About the Colors They Can Wear

In theory, contestants can bring whatever clothes they like to the island, but in practice, it’s not that easy. They can pack whatever they like in their handheld item, but once they arrive on the island and have their personal items checked, any items of clothing with any kind of branding or logos will be taken away. Aside from that, the show also monitors the colors that the contestants wear.

The showrunners only want the contestants to wear colors that are good on camera, and they have rules about everybody wearing the same color. According to People, someone behind-the-scenes once explained, “If someone pushes back too hard on their wardrobe, then it’s a sign to us that they may not be quite ready for the show because if the color of your shirt is that important, you’re probably not ready for the jungle.”

The Tribal Ceremony Takes Much Longer Than Most People Realize

We’re all familiar with those tribal council ceremonies that take place every third night. When there is a tribal council, contestants are asked to evaluate and assess their performance before one of them is taken out of the running. On screen, the process only takes a few short minutes. But the reality is a whole lot different.

Survivor Host Jeff Probst prompts the contestants by asking them all the same question, but sometimes the process takes up to two hours. It’s down to the editors to create compelling TV narratives and whittle down around 500 hours worth of footage for each episode.

There Isn’t Allowed To Be Any Human Interaction Between Contestant En Route To the Tribal Council

Attending the Tribal Council is one thing, but the castaways also have to get there in the first place. Interstingly, the contestants are usually shuttled to the Tribal Council location altogether in a bus, but there are strict rules about communicating with one another that every islander must obey.

Essentially, the castaways aren’t allowed to talk to each other despite the fact that they’re all traveling together. There has to be no communication whatsoever, so subtle facial expressions or hand gestures are all off the table. Crew members watch their every move for the entirety of the journey to ensure that the rules are upheld.

Islanders Are Forced To Undergo a Medical Check After Every Challenge

Naturally, participating as a contestant in the show does have its risks. The risks can be so high that the producers require a team of medics on the island at all times. They are on standby for any health concerns and emergencies that may occur. It’s not unheard of contestants collapsing on the show.

In 2016, three contestants ended up needing urgent medical attention when they collapsed due to a challenge. The producers go a step further in trying to prevent injury by actually checking each of the contestants after they have performed each challenge. You can never be too careful.

The Eliminated Contestants Aren’t Allowed To Return Home Before the Finale

If you’re taken out of the running, you’d think that at least the contestants get to go back home to their lives, their friends, and their families. In reality, however, they aren’t allowed to travel back home even after their last competition. The eliminated contestants have to remain on the island until the season is over.

So regardless of if you’re the first to be eliminated or crowned the winner and “Sole Survivor,” you’re going to be living on the island with only a few of your belongings. They need to stay on the island because they make up the jury during tribal council at the end of the season, helping decide the overall winner.

There Are No-Go Areas That Islanders Are Forbidden From Entering

It can be hard to appreciate just how many restrictions are put upon the islanders. They already have so many parts of everyday life taken from them, and there are even more rules and regulations put in place about where they’re allowed to wander. Contestants aren’t allowed to go anywhere they like on the island.

While the islanders are fighting to survive, they must also ensure that they don’t walk into one of the off-limits areas. The parts of the island that they are allowed to roam are generally beaches or places in the inner island area. Producers section off the places that the islanders are not permitted to explore, keeping the competition relatively fair and consistent.

The Camera Crew Won’t Talk or Interact With the Contestants

Participating in Survivor as a contestant can be quite an isolating experience when you take into consideration the fact that they aren’t allowed to speak to some of the production team. Well, they are free to talk to the camera crew, but they won’t get a response back. That being said, it’s not entirely devoid of human interaction.

The islanders can talk with the production team if necessary, like if they need to get the low-down on logistical issues or if they need some type of special assistance. They cannot engage in a casual chat with the producers and are also not permitted to talk to the other contestants when they are travelling to a new challenge or tribal council.

Eliminated Islanders Get To Enjoy A Luxurious Lifestyle at the Ponderosa Resort

Every contestant that enters into the competition wants to win. But there are some perks given to the eliminated islanders to help soften the blow. These contestants will become part of the jury and will be able to enjoy a more comfortable lifestyle alongside it. In fact, it’s a far more luxurious experience for contestants once they’re off the show.

Forget having to forage for food – eliminated islanders have all their food provided for them at a nearby resort called Ponderosa. They also have the shelter, beds, running water, and human interaction that they had previously had to go without, and they can build their strength back up before having to leave the island and return home.

Sometimes Natural Disasters Occur and the Showrunners Have To Come Up With Alternatives

It’s been known for natural disasters to occur on the island during the shooting of a season of Survivor. On special occasions like this, the producers had to come up with a plan for what to do to ensure the safety of the crew and the contestants while also maintaining the integrity of the reality show.

When a natural disaster occurs, as it did in season 33 when Fiji was hit by tropical Cyclone Zena, the contestants are moved into base camp rooms, where they have to remain until it is safe enough to return to the designated island areas. They aren’t afforded any comforts and continue to be watched 24/7 to ensure that they don’t break any rules.

Sometimes the Reward Food Leaves a Lot To Be Desired

You would think that in the physically challenging situations that islanders find themselves in, reward food would be welcomed no matter what. But according to former contestants, that’s not quite the case. In 2020, Malcolm Freberg revealed, “If it was served in a restaurant you’d send it back.” Former contestant Rick Devens mirrored his sentiments by stating, “The spa food reward was not great. The sandwiches had been out a while. They had at least one thing on every sandwich that you didn’t want.”

Likewise, David Wright had this to say: “The worst thing about the food that you get in a reward is when it’s Fijian pizza, which doesn’t come anything close to what we know as pizza in the States. I remember I was offered to sit out of a challenge for pizza and beer. It was an easy decision to not sit out because it’s just not appetizing at all.

Some Islanders Have Been Known To Binge So Much That They Start Hallucinating

Despite the revelation that reward food can be quite bad, some contestants take to binging on the food in order to increase their chances of outlasting the other contestants. After all, the islanders have been surviving on a bare-minimum diet, and when they are offered some variety, they jump at it with both hands.

Speaking to The Ringer, former contestants Eliza Orlins and David Wright revealed that they would eat until they felt sick. Wright stated, “It’s impossible to restrain yourself, so yeah, you’re gonna get sick.” Christian Hubicki added, “I remember Alison Raybould, the doctor from my season – she was doubled over in pain and lying on the beach that whole night, I think even hallucinating… You can overdo it.”

After Only a Few Days the Smells Can Be Rancid

One of the most revolting aspects of their time on the island is the smells. Unfortunately, it’s extremely hard to block out foul smells and when you’re struggling to survive for days on end, the stench can be difficult to live with. It only took four days for former contestant Christian Hubicki to start picking up on the same smells.

According to Hubicki, there are only a few smells that you start to notice. She explained, “You register exactly four smells on the island after a short period of time: You can smell smoke, mildew, urine, and feces.” Former contestant Elaine Stott said on the matter, “Overall, everyone just kind of stinks, but everyone smells like fire more than anything.”

Nicknaming Their Makeshift Toilet Location Helped Give Them Some Privacy

Despite the awful smells, the islanders do their best when it comes to answering nature’s call. Apparently, there are only a couple of ways to do it when you’re surviving on the island, and one of the ways is by digging yourself a hole in the ground. Naturally, contestants try to do this away from the camp.

According to Elaine Stott, during her time on the show, they had a makeshift toilet location that was called Coconut Grove: “Usually there is a designated area that people go which is called Coconut Grove if I ain’t mistaken. You kind of just say, “Hey, going to Coconut Grove,” and cast and crew leave you be.”

Some Castaways Opt For the Ocean When It Comes To Answering Nature’s Call

That being said about Coconut Grove, some contestants opted for the sea as their bathroom location. They would simply walk into the ocean and do their business, which they hilariously termed an “aqua dump.” Christian Hubicki stated, “The method that’s more recommended is politely dubbed ‘the aqua dump.’ You go into the ocean, you do your business, you come out of the ocean.”

David Wright told The Ringer: ” I never felt weirder than when I took my clothes off on a beach in Fiji and just walked into the water naked and just pooped in the ocean. It felt wrong somehow.” Tyson Apostol gave a positive spin on the situation, adding, “When you’re floating there pooping, guess what – you have a natural bidet there.”

Jeff Probst Has No Problem Threatening the Contestants If They Get Out of Hand

Former contestant Malcolm Freberg revealed that Survivor producer Jeff Probst isn’t shy when it comes to reprimanding the contestants and putting them in their place. “Jeff will come down on you with the fire of a thousand suns if the producers tell him that you’re breaking the rules. I’ve seen that before.”

When asked if the punishments ever get caught on camera, Freberg replied, “No. I can’t go too much into this, but Jeff will make it very clear that if you keep pushing… It’s kind of like a mob threat. Like, you will be taken care of. You will not be sticking around for long if you keep f****** with us.”

Feeling Gross and Repulsive Is Just Part and Parcel of the Island Experience

One aspect which can’t be overlooked is just how disgusting the contestants feel all of the time. It’s something that doesn’t necessarily translate on our small screens, but it’s an ever-present feeling for all of the islanders. They don’t have all their usual toiletries and other hygiene products, so naturally, compromises have to be made.

Former contestant Carolyn Rivera revealed: “Either way, you feel totally disgusting all the time, even after going in the ocean to clean yourself. I also used thorns to clean my nails.” Eliza Orlins gave her two cents in the same interview, adding, “Some people naturally just stink more than others. And I think typically men stink worse than women.”

Crew Members Have Taken to Wearing Face Masks When Fitting the Contestants With Microphones

It’s not just the contestants who are aware of how much they stink. After all, they aren’t entirely alone on that island, and it’s no picnic for the other people working on the show and living near the islanders. The crew members have such a tough time with the hygiene levels that they’ve taken to wearing protection against it.

According to former contestant Tyson Apostol, it only took a week of working alongside the islanders until the crew members started to protect themselves from the stench. After only a few days, they were wearing face masks while fitting the castaways with microphones, to save themselves from the bad breath. It’s not even uncommon for crew members to wear to full-body hazmat suits towards the end of the series.

The Castaways Are Given a Guide on Things They Should Avoid Eating

You may not have realized that contestants are actually given a manual before filming begins to get them acquainted with the rules. They aren’t simply dropped off on an island with no advice whatsoever – they are given tips and tricks about what is and isn’t safe to eat while they are fending for themselves.

Former contestant David Wright elaborated on the fact that living on the island with almost nothing can be dangerous for the castaways, stating, “For the most part you’re not going to die if you play Survivor, but it’s a riskier thing to do than driving to work in the morning.”

Players Aren’t Above Pretending That They Have a Runny Tummy For Some Time Alone

Apparently, things get so tough out there on the island that some contestants have taken to telling lies in order to steal away some private time. Apparently, it’s a go-to tactic for castaways to claim that they have an upset stomach when they feel as though they need the crew members to leave them alone for a while.

Former contestant Malcolm Freberg admitted in an interview that “You can always claim diarrhea if you need a few minutes to go look for an idol. That’s genuinely what everyone does.” David Wright added, “The camera crews out there are everywhere. You get used to them, and they sort of disappear. You forget about them.”

Castaways Lose Much of Their Cognitive Abilities and It Gets Worse As the Season Progresses

One aspect which former contestants have complained about is the fact that they lose a lot of their cognitive functioning when they are trying to survive on the island. So much of their mental focus is lost, and perhaps unexpectedly, it gets worse and worse as the season progresses.

Former contestant Christian Hubicki explained, “When you’re out on the island and you’re starving, you rapidly lose most of your mental functionality, and the ability to keep track of lots of things at the same time rapidly degrades. So it becomes much more difficult in practice to track people by the movement of the cameras than you might expect.”

There Is a Way That Contestants Can Take Five Minutes Away From the Camera Crew

Apparently, the contestants can steal away a couple of minutes to themselves if they just ask nicely. Of course, they can’t take advantage of the situation and request some private time frequently, but it is possible to ask the camera crew is you can just have five minutes where you aren’t being filmed.

Former contestant Tyson Apostol revealed: “Sometimes if I want to do something sneaky, I’ll be like, ‘Hey, I’m going to go hunt for an idol, but I just want to hunt for it and I won’t look anywhere until I get there, so why don’t you have the crew meet me out there and film me out there instead of following me to film it?’ “

Sometimes Contestants and Crew Members Form Amazing Friendships That Last a Lifetime

One of the more adorable and endearing aspects of the show is the fact that contestants often form incredibly strong bonds with members of the crew. It’s not uncommon for former contestants to keep in touch with some of the crew members even after they leave the show, as former contestant Tyson Apostol revealed.

Apostol stated, “I will meet up with camera guys outside of Survivor. Like, if I’m in New York and they happen to be in New York on a different project, I’ve met up and gone to dinner with them and bought drinks for them. And they’ve bought drinks for me. I’ve been to the home of the guy who’s head of security at one point, in Australia. I know these people.”

Contestants Can Have a Difficult Relationship With Food When They Leave the Island

There’s one aspect after starring as a contestant on the show which is almost unanimous. For almost all of the former castaways, they end up putting on a bunch of weight when they return home. After having gone without proper food for weeks on end, they tend to overindulge for a while after they return to everyday life.

Former contestant Malcolm Freberg stated, “I gained 15 pounds in four days… I had binge-eaten a dozen Krispy Kremes and a DiGiorno pizza and gone to sleep.” Eliza Orlins added, “I became a person who was crazy about food. I would hoard food. I would have food in my bedroom. I would carry food with me everywhere I went. Every purse that I had, every pocket had a granola bar, candy, whatever, because I was so scared to be hungry afterwards.”