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How Survivor Maryland went from an ‘epic’ campus competition to must-watch Survivor

How Survivor Maryland went from an ‘epic’ campus competition to must-watch Survivor
Austin Trupp, host and creator of Survivor Maryland, with a gift from his all-star cast: a cardboard version of Jeff Probst. (Photo courtesy Austin Trupp)

When Austin Trupp created a semester-long version of Survivor at his university back in the fall of 2012, he didn’t film all of it. And he certainly never intended for Survivor Maryland to perfectly duplicate—and definitely not compete—with the CBS edition.

“You can’t replicate CBS Survivor,” he told me. “It’s iconic, it’s legendary, it’s done so many incredible things. [My version is] never going to have the same production value, or the same budget, or the same host.”

But some Survivor fans now watch his show, which releases new episodes on YouTube, as reverently and thoroughly as they do with the broadcast version. They also discuss and analyze it in the same way.

And it’s even talked about as being better than the original.

In April, Survivor podcaster Colin Stone tweeted that the premiere of Survivor Maryland’s season five “is *way* better than anything CBS has put out in years. Even if you haven’t seen the other seasons, you’ll be hooked.”

Ironically, that kind of comparison is the source of “the only backlash I’ve gotten,” Austin told me. He said some fans have told him “I should be discouraging people from saying that, which I think is ridiculous. Because why does the CBS show care if there’s criticism about it from a couple superfans? It doesn’t matter.”

We talked about how the CBS show has set a very high bar for itself, and so when it falls short, it’s not failing, just falling short of what it’s previously delivered.

That’s “because of expectations,” Austin said, “and there’s such high expectations for the CBS Survivor because they’ve delivered so many times over the years. I think that people sometimes forget with the recent string of seasons or whatever that there have been so many amazing moments, even in modern Survivor. I mean, I still think of Cagayan … even Kaoh Rong, I love. We have these really high highs on Survivor, so when the lows happen, we get really mad at the show, and I think sometimes it just comes down to luck. I think that’s a huge part of it.”

Austin’s version of Survivor delivers in part because it’s giving fans more of what they want, and that’s because he’s not producing for an advertising-driven broadcast network.

“I’m not constrained by a 42-minute episode,” he said. Most episodes are around an hour—or more—and “that means I’m able to tell more stories, and give everybody a decent edit.”

Survivor Maryland “always was intended to be kind of a spinoff, and its own derivative,” he said. “It examines a lot of different storylines, and different relationships, and you have all these real-life aspects.”

Real life comes into play because of its setting: a college campus.

The origin of Survivor Maryland

“I wanted to prove to people that there were more fun things to do at college besides just like partying and drinking all the time,” Austin Trupp told me about his original impetus to create a version of the show at the University of Maryland. “I thought this would be such a unique experience that people could go through during their lives.”

He mostly wanted to create an “epic competition on campus.”

Season one was filmed, but not completely. “I didn’t start it at all with the idea that I would be putting it out on YouTube for people to watch,” he said. “I only filmed stuff for people to have the feeling like they were in a TV show. Also, I was going to show the players what happened at the end.”

The first season to be edited into full episodes was season two, Survivor: The Maryland Outback, went online in February 2014.

It was possible to edit that into a full season because of the season-two cast. During the first Tribal Council, Austin said the cast told him, “If you’re going to film the rest of it, why not just film all of it?”

That was quite the contrast from season one, when “the players would actually yell at me when I tried to film them strategizing,” he said.

When season two went online, other people—outside of the campus—noticed. “That was the first time I really saw an actual community and group of people really in-depth analyze the show, and write about it, and express feelings about it the same way they would watching an actual reality TV show. That was really the moment for me when I was like, Wow, this has finally picked up a bit of traction.”

The process of producing and running the game itself “had been so much fun and exciting for me, but it’s very different once you see people who are actually watching it come around to that,” he said. “That was when I first started to actually have in mind that this was both: a game I was running, a community at college,” and a show.

Longer—and more intense?—than Survivor’s 39 days

Survivor Maryland Guts & Glory challenge

Contestants on Survivor: Guts & Glory, the fourth season of Survivor Maryland, balance balls as part of a challenge. (Photo courtesy Austin Trupp)

While a regular season of Survivor takes 39 days, Survivor Maryland lasts as long as a season of Big Brother: three months, or basically an entire semester.

That means its players live the game every day, even as they live their lives.

“Even though they have all these other commitments, all these other groups, classes, homework, exams, everything, they are always thinking about it, they’re always talking to each other,” Austin told me. “It becomes such a massive part of their life.”

That’s very different from other fan versions of Survivor, which tend to take place over a condensed period of time, so their players can be stranded together like on the show.

“I enjoyed watching them,” Austin said, but he noticed “that being at college was almost like being on your own island. You don’t really travel outside of your campus too often.” It’s a “very isolated community, and I feel like people were very sequestered within that.”

“I thought that it would be really cool to see that play out over a long period of time. Like, let’s see how people interact and relate as they’re living this entire time out,” he added.

Of course, there aren’t film crews following the players 24/7, ready to split off and follow side conversations, or power up infrared lights to capture nighttime strategy sessions.

So the players have an active role in actually filming the season, which becomes a central part of their life.

“I really worked, as I went in later seasons, on getting them to film many more moments, and pull out their phones when they’re talking and meeting,” Austin said. “It really is like everywhere on campus you go, people are interacting and meeting. You have to plan your whole life around, I have to maintain relations with these people. It’s not just showing up to challenges, and showing up to a vote.”

Survivor Maryland players are in for more than just an occasional challenge.

“You have to be playing it from day one for a 90-day game,” he said. “Which is, in some ways, even more emotionally taxing than being on an island for 39 days, because you don’t have other commitments, other things to worry about. You have to embed this into your life for so long.”

Planning, scheduling, and maintaining Survivor Maryland’s integrity

Since seasons of Survivor Maryland take place during the semester, Austin did the bulk of planning during the previous break: prepping for a fall season during the summer, and for spring seasons during winter break.

“I had a pretty good layout of the whole season in advance, what the main twists were, what challenges I probably wanted, where I was going to do a tribe swap or whatever. I didn’t really deviate from that much,” he said.

It was important for Austin to establish Survivor Maryland was an authentic, fair competition, and not something he was manipulating.

“I tried really hard to make sure that I kept the integrity for the game, and I think that it’s important to do for the sake of integrity itself, but also because … if it seemed like I was switching things up, or playing favorites, or whatever, then I think that would cause a lot of people to not invest fully in the competition,” he told me.

“There are plenty of times where people thought I would favor a person or, Oh, a tribe swap happened at the perfect time. If you really establish how fair it is, then people can’t really question. I had things pretty much laid out before it went,” he said.

He did make adjustments, mostly to accommodate players’ schedules, such as swapping challenges around, but he also adjusted to keep the competition going. “I don’t know how the real show does this, but if a tribe loses four straight challenges, I might do a tribe swap at four instead of six, because it just becomes impossible to do challenges at that point,” he said.

While the season was mapped out in advance, everything from challenges to Tribal Councils were “scheduled ad hoc, and pretty much day by day, which was both good and bad,” Austin said. “It was good in that I was able to let people live their lives, and have other commitments. I was also pretty busy. I kind of needed that flexibility rather than having a set night a week, but it did cause a lot of difficulties at times when everybody has their own commitments or their own things they’re studying for. How do you prioritize whose studying takes effect, or what commitments are valid, and what can you miss? That part was incredibly difficult to manage, but it works out in the end if everybody’s committed to making it work.”

Austin Trupp on being host, producer, and more

Not unlike host of CBS’ Survivor, Jeff Probst—who became the showrunner, the person in charge of production, after almost quitting the show—Austin has multiple, simultaneous roles.

While he eventually brought on “a few people, two to four people on crew per season who were helping me film, helping me with a little bit of the planning, and the casting,” it remained largely his production—especially during the editing, which he does himself.

“I still end up being the host, and someone who films, and somebody who edits, and produces, and whatever. It’s tough to wear all those hats,” he said. “It certainly is taxing, and I’m sure there are ways that I could’ve delegated that would’ve helped me do better as a producer and as a host, but I always like being in those roles.”

Austin said he’s learned a lot, and grown in his various roles.

“This is both a knock but also a strength, I think: I was a total amateur,” he said. “I got a lot better as I went as a host. I went from having to write out questions in Tribal Council,” but “by two seasons in, I could do it off the top of my head and steer.”

Being busy played a role, too: “I didn’t have time to think about manipulating the storylines, or overproducing, or trying to hammer things home. I was just trying to maintain it and make sure everybody was both having fun and also invested,” he said.

But recognized that there was an opportunity to manipulate the game.

“The more I went on, the more easily I was able to see how the storylines were coalescing, and how things were progressing. It became more tempting,” Austin said. “I wasn’t actually tempted, but there were moments when I knew how something would be received, or I knew how something would look. I would have this feeling like, Oh man, I could just pressure someone right now, and they would flip, and I’d have this great outcome.”

But reality proved to be more interesting than anything he could construct.

“I always really enjoy just watching the storylines play out, and I got really lucky, I think, as I went in the luck that the Survivor gods gave me, and how things played out,” he said.

The years-long process of editing Survivor Maryland

The two-and-a-half-year gap between the release of the most-recent seasons of Survivor Maryland is a good indication to its fans of how much time post-production takes.

“It’s a ton of work,” Austin said.

Turning footage into episodes doesn’t start until the game ends. “I don’t touch anything until the season’s over. I don’t touch a single piece of footage,” he said. “I don’t even begin to think about editing, or storylines, or whatever.”

Once he’s ready, though, Austin goes through every minute of footage—about 300 hours for the most recent Survivor Maryland: All Stars season.

Being present for the events helps with editing. Austin said it “allows me to tell the story in such a cohesive way. I was there; I lived all the storylines. There isn’t this removed process where people have to put it together on the backend.”

Austin’s process involves asking himself a lot of questions: “What’s great foreshadowing? How do I develop these stories? What looks important? Also, what are new things that I missed as I was going through it that now are present to me, or make sense now? I think that definitely was my favorite way of going about it,” he said. “It’s very time consuming, but it’s very rewarding to see, when you get to the end, and you have these storylines, and you see how early on that they formed without you really even realizing it.”

Survivor Maryland is exceptionally entertaining and watchable TV—and that’s even more impressive considering Austin taught himself how to put together a story, and also how to compensate for technical limitations.

One editing technique that I found to be particularly brilliant makes a scene, recorded on someone’s phone, appear as if it was filmed with multiple cameras. He does that by zooming in on parts of the picture, and the cutting between wide shots and close ups of the same video.

“It just was something I taught myself,” Austin said when I asked him about that technique. “If you zoom in on the different people, yeah, it looks like you’re jumping between camera angles. There’s no harsh cut. Sometimes they have nice reaction faces. Sometimes it doesn’t look great because the camera quality isn’t great, but I didn’t have three cameras filming people at all times.”

He said that was “the best way to keep the show moving and keep it visually fresh in a way that doesn’t distract.”

Survivor Maryland’s future

All-Stars is Austin Trupp’s final season of editing, producing, and working on Survivor Maryland. But there’s good news for those who want to see the game continue.

“It’s not like it’s the end of Survivor Maryland, but it’s the end of my era of it,” he said. “Between working full time and editing, it definitely takes up most of my free time. A lot of me is ready to move on from it, and to have closure on this project, and to have more time to do various other things, because I feel like I had to manage every second of my time, and I can’t spend too much time with my friends.”

All of that time “is really rewarding,” he added.

Since All Stars, five more seasons have been filmed—and Austin said those who produced the seasons do plan to put out episodes.

While he consulted with them, he was not involved as host, nor will he be editing. He’s also talked with other people on campuses who have started their own versions.

“I’ve been really lucky to have [Survivor Maryland] take hold, and everything come together really nicely, and people to really respond to the show. But there are other ones that are really good, too, that I hope people end up giving a shot when they have the time, and when some of the international Survivors fade off and take a break.”

One of those, he said, “was Ohio State Survivor, and they had [Survivor Millennials vs. Gen X player] Will Wahl on, since he goes to Ohio State, and that was pretty cool. They did a really good job. There’s a lot of good ones out there. A lot of them are developing.”

When he’s giving advice to other campus Survivor producers, Austin said that he tells them, “You have to go as big as you possibly can. You have to really shoot for the stars. You can’t say, Oh, I’m just going to make this little game or whatever.

“When I went in, even if I was naïve and much worse at the time, I was like, This is going to be an epic experience. It’s going to be fun for the people. It’s not going to be cheesy,” he added. “The fact that I went in with that passion and that motivation and drive, I think, made the players rise up to that.”

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.


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