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What happened during Survivor’s most-watched premiere ever

This spring, I’m recapping Survivor’s second season week by week, roughly 20 years after each episode premiered. Today, Survivor: The Australian Outback, episode 1, “Stranded,” which originally aired Sunday, July 28, 2001.

Survivor: The Australian Outback’s first episode is the most-popular premiere in the show’s history. A total of 45.37 million people watched, three times as many people as the number who tuned in for Survivor: Borneo’s premiere. There’s a good reason for that: season two’s premiere followed the Super Bowl, which is still television’s most coveted timeslot.

Interestingly, about 16 million of the post-Super Bowl viewers didn’t return for episode two. Also, the next four seasons of Survivor, from Africa to Amazon, all had about 23 million viewers for their first episodes, and then premiere ratings started a decline before jumping up to 33 million for All-Stars.

When Survivor’s second season premiered, the reality competition was also at the literal height of its popularity, having just smashed through expectations for reality TV and changing television forever.

And it was in the wake of Survivor: Borneo’s finale that the 16 new players began playing—production began on Oct. 23, 2000, exactly two months after the finale. I thought of that frequently as I watched the premiere, recalling how Richard Hatch had been both villain and unexpected winner, and wondering how that affected their game play.

The first season’s cast had no idea what to expect; season two’s cast, however, knew what it’d take to win $1 million. They had a template.

Amber holds up the immunity idol after Ogakor's win on the Survivor: The Australian Outback premiere
Amber holds up the immunity idol after Ogakor’s win on the Survivor: The Australian Outback premiere.

So did the show: You can see Mark Burnett and company finding a groove with their format. Jeff Probst now stands and welcomes the cast onto their mats at the immunity challenge, rather than wandering around among them—though the post-challenge celebration. (I noticed that he referred to being “voted from the tribe” instead of “voted off the island,” a phrase that technically no longer applied but still, obviously, stuck—or so did its truncated form, “voted off.”)

There’s also heightening. Everything is bigger and more challenging on Survivor: The Australian Outback: The players had to hike five miles to their beaches, carrying all their gear; the quest-for-fire opening challenge has three legs, and a huge tower that the winning tribe lit on fire; the Tribal Council set is perched on the edge of a waterfall.

“I can’t think of a more spectacular place for the drama that’s going to go down here every three days,” Jeff Probst says. I agree. There have been more spectacular Tribal Council sets since then, but not a more spectacular location than the Herbert River Falls, with the canyon walls lit so as to provide depth and a dramatic backdrop.

The editing is still jarring compared to what I’m used to 20 years later; there are lots of quick cuts and harsh transitions. A lot of those cuts are from the players reacting to one another.

The tribes try to make camp and settle in, but most of the episode’s time is still spent on personality, though the character development is actually quite minimal.

The most depth we get is Kimmi’s nighttime shouting about masturbating and Debb’s visible—even in the dark—discomfort, or Colby saying that, when he wakes up every morning, “I’m thankful I alive and I’m thankful I’m a Texan.” (I love Colby but really, that’s number two?)

Jerri is irritated by Keith’s condescension; Kimmi is annoyed by Debb for just reading about survival skills; Tina is basically ignored; Jeff can’t wait to start outing people at Tribal Council (oh wait, that’s 32 seasons later).

Jeff—who’s identified as an “Internet projects manager,” which I laughed at because back then it was a new thing and today it’s what so many of us do every day—was annoyed by Kimmi, telling us that “Kimmi cannot say a single thing without screaming it. I just want to grab her by the neck and shake the shit out of her, you know.” Yikes. 

Kucha's raft flips over and Alicia tries to keep the torch lit during the first Survivor: The Australian Outback immunity challenge
Kucha’s raft flips over and Alicia tries to keep the torch lit during the first Survivor: The Australian Outback immunity challenge

Most of the irritation is on Kucha, so it is no surprise that this tribe cannot keep their shit together and fall apart during the immunity challenge—or tipped over, I should say, because that’s what happened to their raft. Despite Alicia’s valiant effort to keep the torch high, it eventually spilled under the surface.

Pagong barely lost the first challenge; Kucha was routed.

Kucha’s loss doesn’t exactly lead to strategizing and scrambling, but there is more Tribal Council discussion than happened during most Borneo episodes. We’re missing a lot, but with that aside, here’s my theory:

I think Debb was voted out first because she was punished for strategizing too early.

Kimmi even refers to Tribal Council as punishment, comparing it to court, which made me wonder 1) why she said “nobody likes to go to court” as if it was the DMV, and 2) why she thinks guilty people go to court.

There is an argument to be made that perhaps Debb just made the fatal but common error of standing out in those first few days. “WE COULD BUILD A PRETTY DECENT SHELTER JUST USING ROCKS,” she shouts at no one in particular a few seconds after arriving at camp.

But if the tribe was going to just vote out the most grating player, Kimmi is right there, waking them all up. So I don’t think it was just that.

Debb Eaton and Michael Skupin at Survivor: The Australian Outback's first Tribal Council
Debb Eaton and Michael Skupin at Survivor: The Australian Outback’s first Tribal Council

The editing makes it clear that Debb knows she’s in trouble. She tells the camera it’s “me, Rodger, or maybe Jeff because he hasn’t been feeling good.”

It appears she tries to turn everyone’s attention on one of those targets, by telling them a version of this: Oh Jeff is sick and ready to go home and fine with it! The only argument who this might not work on is Michael Skupin, who is excited by sickness: “You puked? Did you save it?!”

Debb’s strategy is sound, but she did not do this politicking subtly enough—or perhaps it was just too early in both the season and the franchise to be this aggressively campaigning to boot someone.

Right before we see Debb tell Rodger that Jeff is all ready to go home, Alicia tells Jeff what Debb told her. “That is a bald-faced lie!” Varner says.

Unlike modern Survivor, we do not see the conclusion of this, nor do we see the tribe come to a unanimous decision. There’s more conversation at Tribal Council, but Jeff Probst’s questions only gently suggest that they could talk about strategy if they want to.

Debb seems genuinely surprised that her tribe unanimously voted her out. All of her hard work, she says, “none of that even mattered.” What mattered was that she was playing the game. Earlier, she said her strategy was to keep strong people—“The strong survive”—but in this game, they only survive if they play the game well, too. And it seems this group has come to play.  

All of my Survivor: The Australian Outback episode recaps

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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. Learn more about Andy.

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