“Fire represents life. When your fire is gone, so are you”

In 2023, rapid technological advancements have allowed for all of humanity to become increasingly more digitally interconnected. It is hard to imagine a raw natural world, before humanity conquered planet Earth. A world in which humanity was tasked with a sole unifying goal, simply just survive. In 1994, British television producer, Charlie Parsons, drafted an idea for a television show that mixed both modern digital technology and the raw natural world. This idea, then picked up by American television producer, Mark Burnett, eventually creating the
highly-successful American reality television show, Survivor.

Survivor is a game of social politics where typically 18-24 adults voluntarily maroon themselves on deserted land where they are tasked with democratically eliminating one another until only the ‘Sole Survivor’ remains, and the grand prize that comes alongside it. Acting as a microcosmic social-experiment, Survivor contests also combat living amongst the elements and surviving on their own, all whilst being subjected to non-stop surveillance. This surveillance is then edited and formatted to fit standard episode lengths and broadcasted nationwide, giving audiences a look inside the psyche of those enduring the challenges that come along with the game.

In a 2021 interview with The New York Times, host of Survivor, Jeff Probst explains what Survivor intends to portray to audiences; “Our job is to tell the most authentic version of each person’s story in an electric, visceral, dramatic, and entertaining way... But it must be authentic”. Survivor explores the rawness of humanity, and acts as a reminder to the complex emotions that we all face in daily life. Exemplifying raw emotions of; fear, ostracization, regret, hope, determination, betrayal, community, tribulation, and triumph, all of which ultimately result
in many metaphors to everyday life.

Due to the intense nature of the game, Survivor has faced many controversies over its now twenty-four year run having to do with surveillance exploitation. Many critics of the show have called Survivor out for ruining peoples lives and portraying them inauthentically once broadcasted. Some examples of this include;

-Season 8, 42-year-old Susan Hawk removed herself from the game on Day 17 after being sexually violated by fellow contestant, Richard Hatch.

-Season 16, 45-year-old Kathleen Sleckman experienced a depressive breakdown on the show, and quit the game placing in 13th. Sleckman was seen contemplating slicing off her own fingers in order to get removed from the game, before voluntarily removing herself on Day 19.

-Season 32, 27-year-old Caleb Reynolds was medically evacuated from the game on Day 9 after suffering a nearly fatal heat stroke.

-Season 34, 50-year-old Jeff Varner was impromptu eliminated from the game after revealing to other contestants that fellow contestant, Zeke Smith, was transgender against his discretion. Varner did this as a means of strategy within the context of the game.

-Season 39, 29-year-old Kellee Kim claimed that she was sexually violated by fellow contestant, Dan Spilo, and that she was increasingly uncomfortable with his presence in the game. Spilo was ejected from the game on Day 36, after Kim’s claims were proven to have been factual. Kim was eliminated on Day 22, two weeks prior to production taking her claims seriously.

Since its creation, Survivor has gained millions of fans throughout the entire globe. International versions of the game began to develop shortly after its immense success in the United States. This includes five currently-airing international seasons of Survivor,
-Australian Survivor 8: Heroes vs. Villains,
-Survivor Colombia 7: La Isla de los Famosos,
-Survivor Romania 4,
-Survivor Bulgaria 7: In Unknown Waters, and
-Koh-Lanta 29: Le Feu Sacré (France).

Wednesday March 1st, 2023 marks the premiere of Season 44 of Survivor in the United States, where eighteen Americans will battle each other for the title of Sole Survivor. However, this still begs the question, how ethical is the exploitation of human surveillance for public entertainment?

Premiering this week on February 21st, 2023, Koh-Lanta 29: Le Feu Sacré premieres following twenty contestants across forty days in an attempt to be crowned the Sole Survivor. However, Koh-Lanta has been met with severe controversy in the past, following the 2013 death of 25-year-old contestant Gerald Babin during filming Koh-Lanta 13 due to cardiac arrest. Babin’s death was directly related to the stress induced by the environment of the game, which
resulted in the suicide of 38-year-old Koh-Lanta physician, Thierry Costa only ten days later. After claiming the lives of two individuals, Koh-Lanta 13 was officially canceled and the show took a brief hiatus before returning in 2015 for Koh-Lanta 14: Johor. This has not been the only time a contestant has died on Survivor. In 2009, 53-year-old Noncho Vodenicharov was killed following severe cardiac arrest on Day 14 of Survivor Bulgaria 4: Philippines. Unlike Koh-Lanta 13, filming of the season continued onward and Vodenicharov’s death was aired to account for his elimination in the game. Survivor Bulgaria 7: In Unknown Waters also premiered this week February 18th, 2023.

Despite Survivor’s critical praise, many controversies surrounding the ethics of human exploitation are still prevalent. The modern digital age has proven to desensitize humanity towards the harrowing fates of life. It appears the bounds of entertainment-surveillance have little limitations to them. To quote American writer Kurt Vonnegut, “If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.”

“Death in Paradise for Bulgarian Survivor Contestant | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 1 June 2009, https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/death-in-paradise-for-bulgarian-survivor-contestant-1.777800.

Carley, Brennan. “Jeff Probst Is the Ultimate 'Survivor'.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Sept. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/18/style/jeff-probst-survivor.html.

Mick, Hayley. “Doctor on French Survivor Kills Self after Death of Contestant.” The Globe and Mail, The Globe and Mail, 1 Apr. 2013, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/television/doctor-on-french-survivor-kills-self-after-death-of-contestant/article10618319/.

Picheta, Rob. “Caroline Flack Died by Suicide amid Fears of Prosecution, Coroner Rules.” CNN, Cable News Network, 6 Aug. 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/06/entertainment/caroline-flack-coroners-inquest-scli-intl/index.html.

Henry is a International Studies & Film and Media Studies double major, and has a strong interest in media surveillance, social politics, panopticonism, and societal construct. He is currently working on his Senior thesis on the impact that surveillance & telecommunication technology have had on the human condition. Henry is a self-proclaimed 'super-fan' of the television show, Survivor, and enjoyed writing this piece about the global implications the series has had.
Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff