Survivor memory challenges and Jeff Probst’s dangerous game

Survivor challenges that test the contestants’ memory, such as Wednesday immunity challenge, were unlikely to return to the show for some time–at least until Jeff Probst listened to 17 people on Twitter and changed his mind. Really.

This started with Dalton Ross asking Probst in their weekly Q&A about the Dream Team’s testing of those challenges. As part of his answer, Probst said,

“Personally, I’ve become less and less fond of memory games. We may take a break from them for a while. (No promises, but that’s the gut feeling right now.) They just don’t have enough action to ensure they’ll be exciting, so you are forced to rely on a very close finish, which fortunately we had this week.”

That’s a reasonable answer, even though I disagree; I like variety more than consistent action, and would much rather see a memory challenge than a repeat of a challenge that tests the same skill (endurance, for example).

Anyway, Probst’s response prompted Dalton Ross to have what he describes as “a long back and forth about it discussing the pros and cons” with Probst, who then asked his Twitter followers what they thought. Here’s what Probst said after getting feedback:

“Based on your statement that you actually liked the play along factor of memory challenges — I went to Twitter tonight to ask the fans what they thought. Are memory challenges fun because you can play along or boring to watch? The overwhelming majority was ‘fun to play along!’ So never mind what I said about taking a break from them! They’re back in the rotation! I love getting direct and immediate input from the people who matter most — our fans.”

So, that seems pretty awesome. The executive producer and host of network reality show was willing to be challenged and listen to feedback, and changed plans for the future based on that feedback.

Except: That “overwhelming majority” was, as of right now, 17 out of 18 people who replied to Jeff’s tweet. To be fair, 219 people favorited his tweet; Twitter describes that function as “most commonly used when users like a Tweet” which “can let the original poster know that you liked their Tweet, or you can save the Tweet for later.”

Let’s make the wild assumption that all 219 were letting Probst know they liked his tweet–and not just that they liked that he was asking the question, or that they were bookmarking his tweet, but that they actually like the idea of memory challenges.

So, doing the math:

  • 9.35 million people watched Wednesday’s episode live or DVRed it and watched later that day.
  • 354,252 follow Probst on Twitter.
  • 236 of those people just affected the future of the show.

That’s awesome power. And absurd power.

We have seen this before; three years ago, Probst said a returnee was brought back because of Twitter; the evidence suggested that was Ozzy, even though no one replied to his tweet about bringing Ozzy back and only two people favorited it.

Back then, I agreed with Probst when he tweeted that “complainers typically have a bigger voice than those who enjoy something” and said that hidden immunity idols would have been gone from the game had he listened to those people.

But why listen to the memory challenge complainers and ignore the immunity idol complainers? It’s odd because this isn’t just Probst using feedback to justify his decisions; here, he actually changed his mind. That’s both cool and frightening–frightening because I don’t want the future of one of my favorite shows in the hands of the loudest voices on social media. Read the comments on Survivor‘s official Facebook page’s posts and see how comfortable you are with those people making decisions, never mind the fear you’ll have for the future of our species.

I want creative people who work in television to make the best shows they can, making decisions they think are best, even if I don’t like those decisions. Sure, they should be aware of and listen to constructive feedback, and even incorporate that. But a knee-jerk reaction to what a handful of people say online is not a great creative decision. It’s scary, even if the outcome is a change I agree with.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.