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Phil Keoghan corrects our Tough As Nails assumptions—and talks about its future

Phil Keoghan corrects our Tough As Nails assumptions—and talks about its future
Phil Keoghan, host and executive producer of Tough As Nails season 5 (Photo by Matt Barnes/CBS)

Tough As Nails host, executive producer, and co-creator Phil Keoghan has answered some questions raised by recent episodes of season five of the CBS competition, from the fairness of the muddy ATV challenge to the trend of women being eliminated from the individual competition.

That happened on Rob Has a Podcast, where Phil was a guest of Rob Cesternino, Jessica Liese, and Mike Bloom on Tuesday. The episode is “Phil Keoghan Talks Tough as Nails 5.”

Talking to them, Phil is generous in praise for their recap episodes, and very kindly gives me a shout-out, too, for “helping to keep [Tough As Nails] in the zeitgeist.”

But Phil also points out that listening to or reading our post-episode thoughts and analysis occasionally creates some frustration. “One of the things I struggle with—and I’ve learned a few things—[are] your assumptions and the way that we run things,” he says.

“I do want to address an assumption that was made by you guys, and also by Andy Dehnart,” he says before discussing the ATV challenge (a lot more on that below).

After Phil offers context and information that wasn’t included in the episode, Rob says, “Let us apologize for not giving you the benefit…”

With love and respect, I disagree with Rob here. Of course, I will always apologize if I get something factually wrong—which happens more frequently than I’d like, as ideally, that’s never!

But as critics, fans, and viewers, we can only work with the text we’re given, and I think it’s fair to discuss and make assumptions about what we’ve been given to watch.

This is what I love so much about television and all art. Inside the constraints of their medium, an artist or creator completely shapes their work. They release that completed artifact; we respond to it. How someone reacts to art is completely up to them, and our interpretation of what’s inside that literal or metaphorical frame might be different than the artist’s.

For me, there’s no such thing as a correct interpretation of art. But it is also interesting when I learn about the artist’s process and intent.

With reality TV, we have the art (the episode or show) and then the reality of how that was produced. What didn’t we see? Why did they include what they did? What were people thinking but may not have articulated? We get insight about that process from journalists, critics, producers, and reality TV cast members.

Those three things—the process, the work, and the slippery space in between—are really the center of my interest in reality TV. So while I defend those of us who, say, watched an episode and were frustrated by the fairness of a challenge, I absolutely love hearing from a person who was there.

The muddy ATV course was reset

A person runs down a muddy path in a field, while another lies face-first in that mud
Akeelah runs for the ATVs as Cheryl falls during the Tough As Nails 5 episode 4 individual competition (Image from CBS preview)

“In the mud challenge, I made the assumption that everybody would have assumed that we reset the challenge,” Phil Keoghan told RHAP. “Bad assumption.”

He’s referring to the episode four individual competition, during which contestants drove ATVs through mud, picked up a log, and then drove to the end of the course.

The episode gave us information such as:

  • the first two heats did not require a winch to pull them out of the mud; the last three did
  • the person with the fastest time, Marcus, was in the first heat
  • Cheryl fell, lay in the mud, then limped to her ATV—and still came in fourth

Phil said that analysis of this challenge raised “very valid points, and I think I could have easily fixed it. While I made it very, very clear to the contestants how it worked, I could have made it more clear to you.”

He said that the course was reset for every run, and “those resets took 30 minutes.” During that time, the production:

  • ran a bulldozer through the course, with a set height (Phil thinks 8 inches) over the hard ground to the top of the mud, to ensure it was even
  • measured the depth of the mud/water at “dozens of plot points … to make sure it was consistent”

In addition, long before the contestants showed up, the production had testers run the course, reset the course, and then had the same people re-run it the next day (so they’d be well-rested). Phil said producers wanted to know: “Can they run that course in a consistent time?”

Of course, all of that pre-production cannot be included in an episode, though explaining the process could have been. “All I had to say was: We’re going to reset,” Phil says. “That would be an easy fix for me.”

The apples weren’t wasted

People in orange shirts running alongside a tractor, with two lines of small apple trees on either side
Savage Crew throws apples onto their trailer during the Tough As Nails 5 episode 5 team challenge. (Photo by Robin Cymbaly/CBS)

During the season 5, episode 5 team competition, teams gathered baskets of apples and hurled them onto trailers being towed by tractors. I expressed my anxiety at watching apples roll off the trailers and onto the ground.

Phil said the apples were not freshly picked. Instead, they were all apples that could not be sold, having failed quality control: perhaps damaged in storms or by insects, bruised, whatever.

“None of them could ever be sold for human consumption. They were animal feed,” Phil said on RHAP. They were stored and then put out specifically for this challenge.

After the challenge, no apples were wasted: they’re going to be used for animal feed.

Also of interest: Phil also said “we could not tell” that there was a 1,000-pound difference between the two teams until they actually weighed the apples. “We had no idea.”

There was no penalty for breaking things at the store

One of the more comical moments in Sunday’s episode six was when Yesi bumped an oven door with her cart, shattering it instantly.

Some viewers thought there should have been a penalty for that damage.

Phil points out that the production didn’t consider the possibility of damage, and they absolutely could not have created a penalty after the challenge was run (of course not!).

He says that other countries who produce their own versions of Tough As Nails—Australia is currently casting—will benefit from the U.S. production’s experience if they use the same challenges.

Phil also talks about the challenge of having such a rule, as “adjudication [of] rules in challenges is incredibly difficult.” For example, he says, would a dent in a can be considered damage?

Oh: I also loved the detail Phil shared that one of the show’s camera operators actually filmed while roller-blading through the store.

Women and the individual competition

Dirty Hands team member Lia Mort works on irrigation during Tough As Nails season 3's episode 6 team challenge
Tough As Nails season 3 winner Lia Mort works on irrigation during the episode 6 team challenge. (Image from Tough As Nails via CBS)

Mike Bloom asked Phil about the trend of women being eliminated from the individual competition before men. So far this season, four of the five people eliminated are women, so only two remain in the individual competition.

Phil first talks about casting, noting that, because women and people of color are underrepresented in trade professions, “as far as a pool of people to pick from, the men have an advantage over minorities and over women. That’s just a fact,” Phil says.

“We’re not trying to adjust things to make it so more women are going to do better, but there is an opportunity for women to excel and they have,” Phil says. He cites Lia’s win in season three (the only female winner to date) as one example.

“These women can hold their own,” Phil adds. “Pound for pound, there is nobody that we’ve ever had stronger than Akeelah.”

Phil did say that, after the rules are read for each challenge, he tells the cast, “If you have any issues with fairness, speak up” and that he’ll answer as many questions as they have, because “we don’t want them to be questioning fairness. And sometimes, I guess, some of that information probably needs to be shared with the viewer so they know.”

I do appreciate that, despite the disparity in actual employment, Tough As Nails does do a good job of casting so that it’s not just all young white guys competing. And while production already adjusts certain challenges to compensate for height or weight, and I certainly wouldn’t want them to rig challenges to favor certain contestants.

Still, what we keep seeing—over four seasons now—is that women just don’t make it far in the individual competition. In the first four seasons, just one-third of the people to make it to the final five have been women, even though 50 percent of the contestants are women. Last season, there were zero women in the top five.

That suggests to me something structural that could be addressed. Honestly, I’d just appreciate fewer challenges that can be won by strength alone.

Tough As Nails season 6 and beyond

A group of people running on a dock in front of large red ship with white lettering on its side
Tough As Nails season 5 contestants Paul Hamilton, Ben Dempsey, Todd Anderson, Carly Steiman, Dustin Bradford, Kenji Ngo, Carolina Paredes, Cheryl Lieteau, Akeela Al-Hameed, and Marcus Jones run to start the first individual competition. (Photo by Robin Cymbaly/CBS)

CBS’s abrupt scheduling of Tough As Nails season 5, and its twice-a-week airdates, did not give me confidence about its future. Why burn off such a great series in less than a month, air it on weekends, and with so little notice?

Phil Keoghan told RHAP he was surprised, too. “We did not have a lot of lead-up time to get the show launched. I got a call two weeks before we were about to head out on Amazing Race, and it was like, We’re going in two weeks, and we’re going to be on twice a week,” he said. “I do want to apologize for viewers for the extremely short notice” and says “thank you to our faithful fans for sticking with us, but it’s not been easy to track.”

But Phil said that recent L+7 ratings (those who’ve watched either live or within a week on their DVRs) he’s seen are promising. He also mentions that some viewers are still confused, wondering if Sunday night’s episode is a repeat of Friday’s (it is not!).

“I hope we have the opportunity to keep on going with Tough As Nails,” Phil says. “Our budgets are not anywhere near the budgets of the bigger reality shows. We do a lot with what we have.”

Phil also talked about the desire to move the show to a different location every season, and said other cities and locations have approached the production about filming there.

While a dozen other cities were considered, including Detroit and Pittsburgh, they ultimately chose Hamilton, Ontario, for its ability to meet the production’s needs in terms of locations—and, Phil says, for tax incentives that make it cheaper to film in Canada.

Seasons one, two, three, and four were all in Los Angeles for a very simple reason: the COVID-19 pandemic, which made production much more complicated and expensive, so it was easier to establish a footprint there.

We are, of course, living in an entertainment world where corporations literally put produced movies in the trash and delete seasons of already aired shows to save money on their taxes, so nothing is guaranteed. But my hope is that Tough As Nails continues to be as regular a presence on CBS as Survivor and The Amazing Race.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    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.

Discussion: your turn

I think of writing about television as the start of a conversation, and I value your contributions to that conversation. We’ve created a community that connects people through open and thoughtful conversations about the TV we’re watching and the stories about it.

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Happy discussing!


Monday 28th of August 2023

What everyone is avoiding from mentioning is the obvious fact that men and women are physically different. In my opinion, this show should have a male winner and a female winner. The strongest female has no chance of beating the strongest male in any of the physical competitions. Fact.

Andy Dehnart

Monday 28th of August 2023

If that's a fact, how do you explain Lia winning in season 3? A 54-year-old woman beat a 34-year-old man and a 48-year-old man in a finale that was just as much about strength as the others.

I think the actual fact is that some people are strong and others are not, and there's no direct correlation between that and genitalia.


Tuesday 25th of July 2023

Great insights and appreciate hearing the details from Phil!

But I think the best little nugget of info in this write up was when Phil said "I got a call two weeks before we were about to head out on Amazing Race".

Happy to see that AR hasn't been killed off yet.

Bad Mitten

Tuesday 25th of July 2023

I more or less think Rob was apologetic to Phil more or less because he was a frequent guest on the show in the early seasons and that they know that generally Phil tries to keep things fair. A bit of a oh sorry maybe we should have given you the benefit of the doubt there type comment. But I get where you are coming from Andy.


Friday 21st of July 2023

All great information, thank you for sharing!

I do really love this show and hope it continues. I have been watching both episodes on Sundays, and I love 2 hours back to back, but I hate that that means it will be over soon.

Stephen Randall

Wednesday 19th of July 2023

I’m glad to find out the mud course was reset in between heats, although it makes my yelling at the TV seems silly in retrospect. I share your enthusiasm for this show, and I certainly hope CBS doesn’t screw it up and make a mistake.