The confusing history of Australian Survivor
Updated: Oct 31, 2021
Australian Survivor fans have had a roller coaster of emotions when it comes to their own version of Survivor.
One moment they are excited for an impending local version, the next they are deriding it and claiming nothing will ever top the US version before jumping on a praise train of hype for a refreshed local version and claiming it to be the best version of Survivor ever created.
They’re also a selective group when it comes to the acknowledgement of the history of the show.
A clear example of this is to ask any Australian Survivor fan just what season finished up in 2019?
More than likely “it was the fourth”.
Even the post-2016 contestants themselves will tell you that it was the fourth, with the most recent champion Pia Miranda proudly claiming on her Twitter profile that she is “Sole Survivor Season 4 Aus”.
Pia is proud of her achievement, and rightfully so. But is she right?
The problem is she actually was the Sole Survivor of the sixth season of Australian Survivor. And this is where it can be somewhat confusing amongst those fickle and selective fans of the local version of the reality juggernaut.
Whether fans want to acknowledge them or not, two previous seasons of Australian Survivor aired before Channel Ten aired their first season in 2016: a Channel Nine produced season in 2002, and a Channel Seven celebrity version produced in 2006.
And that’s where the problem lies. The fact that Australian Survivor has the extremely rare distinction of airing on three different commercial networks in the 17 year history of the show.
So the question has to be asked: what is the correct way to classify the show?
Is season 1 the first season from Channel Nine 2002 or the first Channel Ten season from 2016? Is the 2006 Channel Seven version season 2 or simply a separate season altogether?
Perhaps the easiest way to answer this has to come direct from the man who created the Survivor format himself and helped get the Australian version off the ground, Charlie Parsons.
Charlie Parsons, the brains behind the Survivor format. (Photo from charlieparsons.co.uk)
Parsons was the brains behind the original concept of stranding strangers in a remote location, surviving the elements and each other in an attempt to win a cash prize while being filmed at the same time.
He first came up with the idea in 1992 and seven years later it aired on TV for the first time with the Swedish show Expedition Robinson.
The show was an instant hit, and three years later became a bona fide phenomenon when Mark Burnett nabbed the American rights and aired it on CBS, the network where 19 years and 39 seasons later it still is going strong.
And given the Australian version didn’t quite maintain that consistent longevity, it only adds to the difficulty in accurately classifying the show Parsons said.
“In my head the Australian version begins with Nine, but there’s a long time between the first season in 2002 (and the first Channel Ten season) so I’m not unhappy with Channel 10 starting the clock again.
“I love the idea that people are so passionate about this. I do understand why Ten refer to (their) seasons (as) 1-4 and don’t acknowledge past seasons on previous channels as the version on Ten is very different to those early shows when the format was evolving, though I haven’t forgotten those early Australian shows.”
The distribution of the global format for Survivor was handled by the production company Parsons setup called Castaway Television Productions. The company helped distribute the format to more than 67 countries around the world.
Consultant Executive Producer for Castaway Television Production Julia Dick has been involved in the Survivor format since 2001. When asked about how the Australian seasons should be ranked, she was much more forthcoming.
“I look at the season numbering from a perspective of the format, therefore when I am discussing the number of seasons in Australia I add all the versions to date. so the season that just finished broadcasting on Ten for example would be season 6.”
So, that settles it right? If two people involved with the creation and international distribution of the show classify it that way, then that should be the official line?
Not according to some it seems, including the host of the very first Australian Survivor in 2002, Lincoln Howes.
Many remember Howes as the slightly odd choice to host the very first season given his lack of on camera hosting experience, but he ended up doing a solid job in what turned out to be a short lived hosting career.
And 17 years later, Howes believes each version should have it’s own classification.
Lincoln Howes, 2002 Australian Survivor host (Photo from Australian Survivor The Official Handbook)
“I think they should be listed separately,” he said. “Mainly because they were produced by different networks with substantial periods of time between productions. If you watched the 39 series of US Survivor back to back, you’d see how the show evolved over time…Australian Survivor’s evolution has been much more stop-start and logically the various seasons reflect where on the Survivor “timeline“ they were produced.
“Also because there are viewers of the current Ten series who I’m sure have never even heard of the earlier versions and it would be very confusing for them if you numbered all the seasons chronologically.”
And so back to that pesky group where this issue perhaps lies with the most: the fans.
“In the dark decades before Australian Survivor was fully formed, two rival networks both attempted to produce the show and failed on almost every count,” Reddit user JustJaking said in their 2018 thread PSA: Please do try to forget the ‘first’ and ‘celebrity’ ‘seasons‘.
“Regrettably, these ‘prequels’ bore the same title and as such seasons 1 and 2 of the real show are often mislabelled as seasons 3 and 4 on certain websites. So here is a Public Service Announcement with two primary aims – reminding the wider fan base why we prefer to forget those so-called ‘seasons’, and confining the trauma of that explanation to within a single thread.”
It is clear from this that there is no hiding the negative reaction both versions from 2002 and 2006 received, a fact that leads many to ignore them in the cannon of the show altogether.
The majority of this backlash comes down to the “feel” of the show.
For example, both versions did not use the familiar score and theme made famous by Russ Landau on the US version. They also didn’t use the familiar logo and didn’t use the famous “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast” slogan that had become so tied in with the show.
The cast of the 2006 Channel Seven celebrity edition. (Photo from Survivor Wikia)
“It was quite early on in the format business, a business which nowadays is much more sophisticated than it was then,” Parsons explained. “The cost of using the American theme and graphics at that time would have been prohibitively expensive. As I say, there wasn’t then a sophisticated market which made allowances for things like that.”
“I think it’s fair to say the show was in a very early stage of evolution then and didn’t have the sophistication that the show has now. I think it also shows that perhaps Castaway was less clear in what it needed from its partners than we are now.”
Perhaps the final point of reference in classification has to come from the networks themselves.
Well, surprisingly, they remained tight lipped when approached for comment on the matter.
“We’ll politely decline on this one as we keep the Australian version completely separate to Survivor,” a Channel Nine spokesman said.
“I would suggest that you get in touch with the production company Endemol Shine Australia re these questions,” a Channel Ten spokeswoman said.
At the time of this article being published, Endemol Shine had not replied to requests for comment, so no luck there.
As for Channel Seven? Well no reply had been received by them either.
With all this in mind and a variety of opinions expressed, a clear answer on how the show should be classified doesn’t seem any closer to being achieved.
But perhaps there doesn’t need to be a clear answer on the subject.
Instead, perhaps the conversation around coming up with a clear definition of cannon and classification should instead reflect the storied history of the show and the fact that no matter how it started, the show has finally found a clear place in the history of Australian TV.
Lincoln Howes looks on during a challenge on the 2002 version
This is a fact perhaps best summarised by Parsons himself, who admitted pride in the fact that Australian Survivor had finally found success, as it was always seen as the “market that got away” by Castaway.
“I’d hate to be prescriptive about what people should or shouldn’t think. I’m also so involved in the history of the show that of course I personally can’t help acknowledging it, and thinking it is important.
“For me, getting it on in so many markets was a personal battle, so it is part of my DNA. However some viewers of today’s shows may not even have been born when the early programmes were on air.
“If they want, they can go back and get involved in them but it’s a long time ago. But I’m just happy that they are enjoying today’s output, even if it is flowers from a seed planted back then.”