January 28, 2001, was a Sunday, and it was Super Bowl Sunday. The Ravens played the Giants in Tampa; Aerosmith and NSYNC performed during halftime; and Survivor: The Australian Outback premiered after all of that was over.
CBS gave television’s best timeslot to season two of its new hit show, which filmed in the fall following the conclusion of Survivor: Borneo, a show that shattered people’s conception of what reality TV was and could do.
“For the first time, there may be as much hype for the show after the Super Bowl as the Super Bowl itself,” CBS president of ad sales Joe Abruzzese told USA TODAY in an Oct. 9, 2000, story.
That story reported that “Anheuser- Busch, General Motors, Visa and Frito-Lay are paying roughly $12 million apiece to return to sponsor Survivor,” which was “triple the $4 million they and four others” paid for season one.
In other words, it was a big deal. The premiere became—and will probably forever remain—the highest-watched premiere episode of Survivor with 43.5 million viewers, although that was about 7.5 million fewer than watched Survivor: Borneo’s finale.
Yes: the finale of season one actually had more viewers than a post-Super Bowl show, that’s how insanely popular Survivor was in its first season.
And it remained popular. While season-one’s cast became household names, they didn’t exactly go on to wild success. Colleen Haskell got a movie role—but a Rob Schneider movie, and a completely forgettable one at that (it was called The Animal).
In many ways, the season-two cast became more famous—especially after the season, when many of them went on to varying degrees of fame and success. To name just a few examples:
- Elisabeth Filarski became Elisabeth Hasselbeck after marrying NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck, and then became a successful conservative TV pundit, co-hosting The View for a decade and spending two years on Fox News’s Fox and Friends, where her presence immediately increased ratings. She returned to The View last year to defend Donald Trump’s inaction.
- Colby Donaldson returned twice to Survivor and went on to host the terrific Top Shot and, later, shows like The Butcher and Alone. Colby is one of the few people I can imagine taking over as host of Survivor.
- Amber Brkich married the love of Jeff Probst’s life, Rob Mariano, after meeting and beating him on Survivor: All-Stars
Others became notorious, especially members of the Kucha tribe:
- Michael Skupin, who fell in the fire during the season, was arrested five years ago and charged with 12 felonies, including possession of child pornography, and was later convicted. He went to prison for a year.
- Jeff Varner outed Zeke as trans on Survivor Game Changers.
- Kimmi Kappenberg recently “casually invoke[d] the Holocaust to make dangerous and demonstrably false claims about the COVID vaccine”.
Let’s re-watch Survivor: The Australian Outback together
Like Survivor: Borneo, I didn’t write regular recaps of season two. I did watch and cover it—there are 27 pages of archives here!—but it was years later that I started taking deeper dives into each episode after the episode.
So: I’m doing it now! Just like with my recaps of season one last summer, I’m going to watch and write about an episode each week, 20 years after the premiere. I’ll start Sunday with the premiere, and then continue every Thursday, watching every episode (roughly) 20 years after it aired.
If you’d like to watch along with me, it’s available, though in far fewer places than season one, alas. You can:
- watch on Hulu
- watch on CBS All Access, which will change its name to Paramount+ this spring (there’s a free trial)
- buy the DVD
Just as with Survivor: Borneo, it’s impossible to watch as I did back then, because I know the outcome of the season and also know many of these characters in different contexts, some of which have already made me angry at them before I’ve even started re-watching!
But I cannot really remember much about the season except a few isolated moments, so I’m excited to revisit it.
While Survivor continued—and continues, to this day—to evolve and change, my sense is that Survivor: The Australian Outback is when Survivor really locked into its format and style. We’ll see!