How a Group of Survivor Superfans Staged Their Own Online Reality Show

From casting choices to creating a narrative based on screenshots, what does it take to produce a virtual show?

The tribe has spoken, and Survivor is here to stay.

When the show premiered on American television in the 2000s, it was charting a territory relatively unknown — that is, the concept of “reality” television. Sure, it wasn’t the first reality show out there, but its introduction of a system to vote out contestants brought out a novel sense of suspense. It struck gold with its brand of harshness and humiliation, a kind of intrigue that was shiny and new back in the day. Lo and behold, it birthed a second season. And another. And another. And another. Forty seasons, 50 international adaptations, and 24 islands later, Survivor has become a juggernaut franchise spanning two decade’s worth of addictive television. Even the Philippine broadcaster GMA bought the franchise and aired Survivor Philippines, Survivor Philippines: Palau, Survivor Philippines: Celebrity Showdown, and Survivor Philippines: Celebrity Doubles Showdown, with Paolo Bedionez and Richard Gutierrez each hosting two seasons.

It is within this backdrop that Pinoy Survivor League (PSL), an online reality game (ORG) spin-off, was helmed by adoring superfans of the franchise. “We’ve actually been a fan of the show for a long time now, and as fans, we somehow think of new twists or themes that we think would be interesting to be implemented in the actual show,” shares co-creator Van Lizardo in an email correspondence with COMMONER. Joined by seven others who share his love for the game, it had been their dream to try their luck in auditioning and eventually playing in the hit franchise. However, that fire was snuffed out when the local counterpart aired its last episode in 2011. And so they had to take matters into their own hands.

A Social Experiment in Action

In reality show formats of recent years, there has been a surge of the social experiments genre. This concept of research done in fields like psychology and sociology to see how people behave in certain situations have been taken out of the lab and into our screens. Variety’s Leo Barraclough observes that there has been a shift into more niche, personal, and extreme tropes. A trend within this trope are shows hinged on people getting in each other’s shoes to see life from the other side, such as in What Do You Think I Do from MTV3 in Finland, where couples switch lives for a week so as to understand each other’s perspectives. In the Netherlands’ The Opposites, two opposing groups (e.g., young versus old, meat eaters versus vegans) are forced to spend time with each other in an effort to look beyond stereotypes.

There are also social experiment shows hinged on the concept of social media, such as Netflix’s The Circle. Here, the contestants never get to see each other and can only communicate through a virtual platform sans video calls. Vox’s Aja Romano calls it “Big Brother, but on the internet,” with its premise lying on whether players will remain true to themselves or fake it till they win a USD 100,000 prize and bragging rights as the ultimate winner. Pinoy Survivor League goes along the same vein of these social experiments, taking its cue from Survivor’s “Outwit, Outlast, Outplay” tagline. Lizardo shares, “When strangers are forced to battle it out in an arena where they can do anything, whether be heroic by playing loyal and true to their words, or be villainous by lying and backstabbing just to win, is when the magic happens. The dynamics between the players is the heart of the game.” In doing so, viewers get to watch the interplay of human psychology, social sciences, politics, and even the art of war come to life. Certain questions arise and unveil right before their very eyes. Will the players play as themselves or will they create a persona where they’re more cutthroat and unforgiving? How far can one go to ensure their survival?

Organizational behavior professor Nigel Nicholson observes that surviving in ancient times meant due diligence in making alliances. It is a natural occurrence then when our default mode is to categorize people based on the small pieces of evidence seen by the naked eye, like looks and readily apparent behaviors. As part of two different sides of the coin, competition and cooperation work hand in hand, and are the dominant forces of nature.

A tribe’s group chat monitored by the “Pinoy Survivor League” host and shown to virtual audiences.

PSL documents these tendencies with surprising accuracy, and they’ve been at it for 17 seasons to date. In a span of over four years, the challenges have evolved with new thrills and twists, but what primarily keeps audiences on their toes are the castaways. “These players are either loved or hated, bashed or praised, all depending on how they decide to play the game. One’s success story is another’s downfall, one’s betrayal could be another’s redemption arc, and people get to see these unfold right through their Facebook timelines. As we say it sometimes, it’s like ‘hacking someone’s Facebook account and reading their conversations with others’,” says Lizardo.

How It Works

Pinoy Survivor League is loyal to the general format of the original, but as far as an ORG goes, the magic happens online. The players, also known as “castaways” in Survivor lingo, get virtually marooned for 39 days on a deserted “island” — well, photos of it, anyway. Based on the particular season’s theme, they will be divided into tribes and go head-to-head on challenges that will test their wit and strategy. As the race to the end nears, castaways are merged into one tribe, and then battle it out for individual immunity. Ultimately, the players voted out earlier on in the game get the casting vote to determine who wins the Sole Survivor title.

Pinoy Survivor League’s castaways for its current season

A private Facebook group currently holding over 1,000 members serves as the main channel bridging PSL to the outside world. This is where loyal followers of the spin-off see the action unfold, complete with betting games, heated discussions, and an abundance of memes. The alliances, betrayals, and game plans take place through the players’ group chats on Messenger, which are duly monitored by the host and then screenshot for viewers. Think of it as receipts, the online equivalent of getting footage beyond the games to supplement the narrative.

The castaway’s challenges, meanwhile, are designed for rewards or immunities, and involve the use of apps, photo or video proofs of contestants doing the tasks, and Zoom rooms. To stir the pot, juicy confessionals remain part of the formula, with players sharing their sentiments to the eight-man production team via video or text. Additionally, the tribal councils — shorthand for the stage in the Survivor universe where someone is voted out of the game — are streamed in real time.

Lizardo notes that it’s no easy feat to uphold. “It takes a lot of time and effort from our end — like we start out with planning the theme for the season, then the twists, and then we start the casting process. During the game, we trace every conversation the players are part of to create a story. Then, in filming challenges and tribal council, we do it as if it’s an actual studio production.”

Our Obsession with Reality Television Explained

These days, the closest thing to escaping from routinary days is living vicariously through reality TV.

In an interview with BBC, professor Dr. Tanya Horeck notes that people are watching the genre even more as a way to process complex feelings during the pandemic. By bringing us up close and personal with “ordinary” but aspirational people, offering a safe space away from any mention of the novel coronavirus, and providing formulaic tension we can bear, it becomes a wistful form of escapism.

It is also through reality TV that people can run on an emotional treadmill. For a good portion of an hour or so, viewers are allowed to practice empathy and get an inkling of social strategy in tense or awkward moments — by watching someone else go through it from afar. Likewise, it also strokes a person’s voyeuristic tendencies, in which one enjoys backstage access to what cannot otherwise be seen. All these and the Filipinos’ rooted fascination for reality TV and drama is enough for Pinoy Survivor League to stay on the radar.

What “Pinoy Survivor League” is all about in a nutshell

The team of superfans turned producers Van, Lord, Jaymar, JC, Aide, Jeff, Jan, and RJ has only just begun. “What started as a game between people from Luzon vs. Visayas vs. Mindanao has evolved and will continue to evolve to test how people from different walks of life, carrying different beliefs, attitudes, upbringing and demographics, will work with and against each other. Our love and passion for Survivor and the goal to give these fans the chance to play the game we all love is what fuels and motivates us to continue what we’re doing,” shares Lizardo.

Though far from the tropical jungles of the savannas where the original show was filmed, Pinoy Survivor League makes a compelling homage to the juggernaut that inspired it. Could online reality games such as this one be a new form of lucrative entertainment? Only time will tell.

Arrah Balucating is currently taking up her masters in entrepreneurship, and is leaning towards starting her own venture that can help impact the community and the planet. On her free time, she likes discovering stories on human interest, internet and pop culture, and anything pertaining to lifestyle, wellness, and mental health.

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