As the reality behemoth celebrates its 25th anniversary, Parsons, who reinvented early morning TV in the U.K. by ditching the format’s staid conventions for the anarchic “The Big Breakfast,” reckons there are several reasons why “Survivor” has defied the odds and, well, survived for so long.
“Ordinary people’s stories are interesting. How they cope with the situations they find themselves in is interesting. Our big thing about ‘Survivor’ was that it was almost like a sport,” he says. “The show is extremely careful about its contestants, all of whom are heroes. It’s not exploitative and not watching and sneering.”
He adds that on this show, the cast aren’t looking to be famous but instead are “obsessed by the strategy and tactics in the game.
“That’s what makes ‘Survivor’ unique. I am extremely proud of the show. It was part of the democratisation of TV. What I didn’t know was that it would spawn so many copies and imitations.”
There may be a touch of ruefulness there. He once filed a legal suit against Endemol alleging that “Big Brother” was a rip off of “Survivor.” He lost his case, but Parsons, known equally for his short fuse and charm, never doubted that what eventually became known as “Survivor” would one day become a global breakout hit and effectively invent what we now know as reality TV.
It’s salutary to note that as the show airs its 43rd U.S. season on CBS, the series’ genesis goes back as far back as 1988. At the time, Parsons was working on a cutting-edge U.K. show “Network 7,” aimed squarely at hip under-25s who tended to avoid mainstream TV because it was so uncool.
He was determined to push the boundaries of what was considered acceptable on TV — and never took no for an answer. Typically, a segment on “Network 7” conducted a live vote on whether an inmate in a U.S. prison on death row should live or die. The idea was jettisoned.
Another stunt was dreamt up by a member of Parsons’ team, planting the seed that would eventually sprout “Survivor.”
“Why not isolate a handful of celebrities on an island and film them,” suggested researcher Murray Boland in Peter Bazalgette’s “Billion Dollar Game,” a book that tells the stories of “Survivor,” “Big Brother” and “What Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
Parsons became obsessed with the idea and the Sri Lankan Tourist Authority were persuaded to fly a group of minor celebs, including a British soap star, to a desert island in the Indian Ocean.
“Without knowing it, Parsons and his colleagues had invented the modern celebrity reality show,” writes Bazalgette.
For four weeks in 1988, the results of this dry run for what would become “Survivor” ran on “Network 7.” It went largely unnoticed, but Parsons saw the potential for a genuinely ground-breaking series.
Fast forward to 1994 and the 30-something TV producer, high on the success of “The Big Breakfast,” was in the U.S. where he signed a development deal with Disney’s distribution arm, Buena Vista. ABC was interested in his embryonic TV show, which by then featured 16 competitors marooned on a remote island. The idea failed to earn a greenlight.
Parsons remained unfazed. ABC envisioned the program as a special. Its creator was determined “Survivor” — then called “Survive” — must be a long-running series in order for it to make noise.
Back in Europe, the idea was further honed — crucially, the format involved a popularity contest in which contestants voted one another off the island one by one.
“I did get big interest from Granada, but ITV didn’t want to run it as a 13-episode series,” recalls Parsons. “I refused to do that, which in hindsight, was super brave of me. Andy Harries [who went on to form Left Bank] was a champion of the show.”
Finally, in 1997, Swedish pubcaster SVT agreed to make the show, by then entitled “Expedition Robinson.” At £2 million, the series was the most expensive commission in the history of Swedish TV. By the final episode, “Expedition Robinson” was Sweden’s most popular show. A second series was ordered as other Scandinavian countries prepared to launch their own versions.
Parsons, however, had his eye on the big prize — a U.S. commission. To help him, he agreed to license the show to Mark Burnett, a one-time British soldier who’d fought in the Falklands turned well-connected Hollywood-based maker of ambitious TV entertainment shows.
“He desperately wanted to produce it,” recalls Parsons. “It worked out because he understood America much better than I did. It was a big idea, but his filming technique made it even bigger. He was crucial to the process.
“He convinced people who I would never have been able to put it on. It was almost no risk to CBS, because at the time CBS was not doing well. It was all win for CBS. Mark Burnett basically made it brilliant, cinematic and enormous.”
Lucas Green, Banijay’s global head of content operations, hails “Survivor” as “the original, simplest and best of its kind … the ultimate adventure reality show.” Banijay owns global rights to the format, having bought Parsons’ company, Castaway, in 2017.
Green credits the format’s longevity to being “full of jeopardy and human drama, fueled by a diverse cast, always set against a tropical paradise synonymous with the show.”
He adds, “Copycats just can’t compete, because all these elements combine to make ‘Survivor’ truly unique and enduringly successful.”
Despite being a worldwide phenomenon with 50 global commissions to date, in the U.K., it’s always been eclipsed by reality rivals including “Big Brother” and “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” In the past, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 all rejected “Survivor.”
The show eventually managed just two seasons on ITV, having been axed in 2002 — a move Parsons admits was a “big disappointment.”
“When it was on ITV, it rated very well and got amazing reviews. But it wasn’t well scheduled. It wasn’t quite right,” he says.
That, however, may change as the BBC is about to reboot “Survivor.” Expectations are mounting that this reality TV giant can finally become a winner on its creator’s home turf when it bows on BBC One next year.
“Now is the right time for it to make its mark in the U.K., as audiences have a huge appetite for stripped arc reality. This has an important role to play for on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer,” Green says. “‘Survivor’ will be a bingeable boxset, with all the hallmarks of our new favorite genre, the ‘unscripted thriller.’”
Parsons remains an executive producer on the U.S. version but has spread his creative energies into other areas beyond TV, including helping to bring the imaginative Bob Dylan musical, “The Girl From the North Country” to the stage.
Still, he feels enormous affection for a show that not only changed TV but made him a wealthy man.
So, could “Survivor” run for another 25 years?
“What’s incredible is how ‘Survivor’ is still incredibly fresh,” he says. “It’s got this life to it. The arc of TV formats is that they run for a long time, sometimes have a bit of a gap, and then reappear in a slightly different way. Yes is the answer. It absolutely can.”
And Parsons has a knack for eventually being proved right.