Podculture: Northwestern “Survivor” shows contestants’ true selves

Jack Austin and Joshua Perry

The reality TV show Survivor is one of the best-known competition shows on television. With dozens of seasons and decades of airtime, it has prompted a variety of recreations — including one at Northwestern. Participants in Northwestern Survivor follow the same format as the game, competing in challenges as castaways are eliminated until one receives a cash prize. 

JOSHUA PERRY: Before we begin, a content warning. This episode contains explicit language.

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JOSHUA PERRY: Most people would find it difficult to keep a brand-new club on its feet with members scattered throughout the country and a pandemic ravaging the globe.

JACK AUSTIN: But for these students, surviving is what they do best.

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JOSHUA PERRY: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Joshua Perry.

JACK AUSTIN: And I’m Jack Austin. This is Podculture, a podcast about arts and culture on campus and beyond.

JOSHUA PERRY: The student organization Northwestern Survivor started in Winter 2020 as then-Communication senior Chase Reed’s film project. It’s based off of “Survivor,” a popular CBS reality TV series in which a group of castaways on a tropical island are pitted against each other in a series of challenges. Each person is competing to stay the longest on the island — and to win a large cash prize. Winners of the challenges temporarily secure their place on the island, and the losers are forced to make the difficult decision to vote one of their fellow contestants off the show.

JACK AUSTIN: The show has an incredibly dedicated fanbase and has inspired many of Northwestern’s castaways to participate in their own version of the game. Communication junior Kylie Boyd, for example, said she has been watching “Survivor” since she was in high school.

KYLIE BOYD: There’s some people who’ve been watching literally since they were born. I started a little late.

JOSHUA PERRY: McCormick senior Jane Leff is a much more seasoned fan. “Survivor” has had a huge impact on her, especially during the pandemic.

JANE LEFF: Over the course of March to September, I would say I rewatched almost every season of “Survivor,” mostly ‘cause I wanted to, and also then I was realizing that I really spent a lot of time studying how “Survivor” works. I really studied every single episode and how to make it through every single vote to try to get myself to the end.

JACK AUSTIN: The format of NU’s Survivor reflects the original: students are divided into two tribes that compete against each other. The winning team gains immunity, while the losing team has to vote a player off. At the end of the season, the last person on the island — metaphorical in this case — wins the prize and the show. 

JOSHUA PERRY: NU’s Survivor isn’t the first of its kind. Among the over seven million viewers of the show, many college students and long-time fans hoped to recreate the show with their own small-scale “Survivor” games. Northwestern Survivor is following in the footsteps of the University of Michigan, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Maryland and others. 

JACK AUSTIN: Contestants said the game revolves around identity, and at its core is a social experiment that reveals who a person truly is. One reason so many love the show is the way it reveals people’s desires, strengths and shortcomings. 

JANE LEFF: It is really hard to fake it. People who are really trying to fake it can only fake it for so long. You will always see at the end of the day who somebody is on the inside.

JOSHUA PERRY: Communication senior Gus Moody competed in the first season and co-hosted Seasons Two and Three. He said he felt that the elite university environment, with stressed, busy students, provides a unique pool of contestants. 

GUS MOODY: “Survivor” is a social experiment, I think. Boiled down to its essentials, that’s what it is. College Survivor isn’t like we are trying to mimic “Survivor.” It’s what if we put 16 college students who are so busy with extracurriculars and school and dealing with a global pandemic into the most socially demanding thing in the world. It’s just exciting to see what happens.

JACK AUSTIN: Season One began filming in person, but when the pandemic hit, NU was forced to go virtual, and everything changed. The game was included and ended up mostly being played over Zoom. But while it certainly posed a challenge to the production of Season One, the pandemic didn’t cut production off entirely. In fact, class of 2021 graduate and past Survivor contestant Carson Knoer said that things could have been a lot worse.

CARSON KNOER: It’s obviously a bummer that we couldn’t meet in person because there was something special about meeting somebody on-campus for this game. But it honestly transitioned pretty well.

JOSHUA PERRY: Carson said it wasn’t too difficult to switch the challenges over to a virtual format and filming the show over Zoom was actually pretty simple. All in all, things went smoothly.

JACK AUSTIN: And it was nice for many of the members of Northwestern Survivor to maintain a sense of community. For Kylie, participating in the game was a valuable resource amid the isolation of remote classes and social distancing that defined 2020.

KYLIE BOYD: It has been truly an insane way to meet people through the pandemic. It quite literally demands that you socialize, ‘cause if you don’t socialize there’s not really a point in playing because you’ll probably get voted out.

JOSHUA PERRY: After filming three seasons virtually, club members said they are excited to film Season Four completely in person. And Northwestern Survivor recieved club status from ASG this past winter, providing an extra incentive to participate. From now on, the University will provide funding for the $100 winning prize each season.  

JACK AUSTIN: Regardless of the degree of success each tribe member attained, participants said that they learned a lot from the show, both about themselves and how they are perceived by other people. Jane said the show made her more confident and social. 

JANE LEFF: They say it on real “Survivor,” and it’s true — you have to know who you are. If you don’t, they are going to eat you alive. 

JOSHUA PERRY: In the intense competition environment, filled with back-stabbings and power grabs, people involved with the show experience heightened emotions. 

JACK AUSTIN: For Gus, planning a big scheme and communicating with allies behind the scenes proved to be highly rewarding. His machinations gave him a feeling he said was “akin to the best drugs humanity has to offer.” But he also spoke about the overwhelming sadness of watching a player voted out of the game. 

JOSHUA PERRY: In a game with both high monetary and interpersonal stakes, contestants experience the full range of human emotion. Underlying everything is the competitive edge driving the castaways as they strategize how to move forward. According to Carson, there’s a lot that goes into this planning element of the game.

CARSON KNOER: In Survivor, there’s this complex balance of social dynamics, individual performance, and connection and manipulation. It’s this really interesting combination of a lot of different traits. 

JOSHUA PERRY: And of course, the players want to win. 

KYLIE BOYD: People want to win it so bad, every single person wants to win so bad.

CARSON KNOER: And it’s dramatic. It’s exciting. There are a lot of twists and turns, and there is a lot of emotion and energy and betrayal and bondage, and it’s going to be really fun to watch.

JACK AUSTIN: Contestants impart their own style and strategy upon the game and often look to CBS “Survivor” for inspiration and guidance on how to progress stage by stage. Jane said she studied CBS “Survivor.” 

JANE LEFF: My strategy going into the game was to create some really strong relationships with some people and to not leave anybody out — to try to have good relationships with everybody. To me, that is also a life strategy. Never the person who is the loudest in the room, never the person who was the quietest, trying to stay in the middle as much as I could.

JOSHUA PERRY: As a host, Gus most enjoyed spicing up the game. One method was employing rules from other reality TV shows. 

GUS MOODY: The most fun part about it, in my opinion, was coming up with the twists that shake up the game and shock contestants. The most rewarding feeling for me is revealing a new twist to the castaways, seeing their shocked reacted faces — seeing not the panic in their eyes, but the “Oh my God, how are we going to deal with this now?” and knowing that I’ve done my job as a producer to spice up the game a bit. 

JACK AUSTIN: Club members are optimistic about the next season of the show, especially because it will be filmed in-person. 

GUS MOODY: The future of the show is going to be so f—king good. I am so excited. I think we have done a good job of creating an engaging and exciting thing to watch despite it being solely over Zoom. I think everything is going to be better. There is so much more we can do with things being in-person. Watching somebody physically stand up and leave the tribal council area to write down their vote is so much more engaging than cutting from breakout room to breakout room.

JOSHUA PERRY: Despite their physical separation thus far, the students in Northwestern Survivor are close, and they say the experience has been incredibly valuable. Many contestants, like Kylie, emerged from the show knowing more about themselves.

KYLIE BOYD: It definitely made me more confident. It made me more social. I definitely feel like I learned a lot from it, just as a person.

JACK AUSTIN: Northwestern Survivor ultimately tests students, judging their character, intellect and strength. Tensions run hot in this highly competitive game that can be in equal turns ruthless and satisfying. Challengers need to be strong individuals who can cooperate in group settings if they are to succeed. The drama, the twists, the shame and the glory coalesce to make wonderful entertainment that teaches people a little bit about who they really are. 

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JANE LEFF: Everyone who plays it is like, “I feel more confident, I feel bolder, I feel stronger as a person.” It’s incredible, and I am literally so glad that I did it.

JACK AUSTIN: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Jack Austin.

JOSHUA PERRY: And I’m Joshua Perry. Thanks for listening to another episode of Podculture. This episode was reported and produced by Jack Austin and myself. The digital managing editor of The Daily Northwestern is Jordan Mangi, and the editor in chief is Jacob Fulton.

Email: [email protected] and [email protected]

Twitter: @JackAustinNews and @Joshdperry

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