A Study of Quitters

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Monday is here once again and with it comes another new Survivor Oz Feature Article! This week, Canadian Ozlet, Colin Hilding, looks into the controversial topic of quitters in Survivor. In his article, Colin discusses how the show has tried to make examples of some quitters, whilst ignoring others, the reasons why a quitters true intentions are left on the editing room floor and how somebody quitting cause problems for production. As always, if you’ve got something to say about the article, make sure you comment and let us know!

There is no subject in Survivor more controversial than quits. While nobody likes to see a contestant quit, the more controversial element often tends to be how the show handles quitters. No quitter has ever been treated the same on Survivor. Each player is responsible for only themselves, whereas the show is responsible for orchestrating a long term game, producing a set number of episodes in a preset amount of days with a locked in number of contestants. What happens when a contestant quitting messes with this format? If a season begins with only sixteen contestants and the episode count is set before filming begins, one contestant quitting too early in a cycle will cause countless logistical issues. Someone adamant about quitting on Day Thirteen has to be treated differently than someone who wants to quit on Day Fifteen. Even putting the production schedule aside, there is also the issue of telling a story. While some motives for quitting can be viewed as selfish, others have more justifiable reasons for leaving. Some of these are aired as they occur, while occasionally the contestants’ motives have to be hidden. There is so much at stake for the show when a quit occurs. A lot of viewers assume the show handles quitters based on personal feelings, but I believe that’s not really the case. To assume that personal feelings dictate how Burnett, Probst and CBS handle quitters is to ignore the bigger issues. They may have their personal feelings, but at the end of the day Survivor is a business. There are many good theories why quitters are treated the way they are on screen.

Theories I want to cover include:

– The words “I quit” are forced on some contestants for the sake of telling a story or making an example of someone, while not forced on others.

– The reasons behind why some quits are hidden from the audience for a good reason.

– The number of contestants, number of episodes and other important production details that need to be taken into account

The obvious starting point is in Pearl Islands, with Osten Taylor, the first ever “official” quit on Survivor. It was in episode two of that season, conveniently titled “To Quit or Not to Quit”, where Osten first mentioned wanting to leave the game. Six episodes later Osten’s story arc would come full circle when he voluntarily laid down his torch. Throughout his run on the show, he was either portrayed as a whiner who wanted to leave, or a bizarre character with an irrational fear of birds. By the time Tribal Council came, Osten had already announced his intention to leave, but Jeff wouldn’t make it that easy on him. So many contestants over the years have admitted to openly asking their tribes to vote them out and Jeff and the production crew went along with the motions and held the vote as usual, editing out any mention of volunteering for elimination. The same could have easily been done in Osten’s case.

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Most likely they wanted to use this instance with Osten to set a new precedent in the game. The Morgan tribe expected to go into Tribal, talk about Osten’s desire to leave the game and then go to a vote. That of course never happened, as Jeff continued to probe Osten for those words “I quit”, and when he did eventually say it, a vote was skipped. Jeff’s usual “the tribe has spoken” line was put aside for the more appropriate statement of “per your wishes… go home”. The example didn’t end there. As soon as Osten had walked away from the Tribal set, Jeff proceeded to throw Osten’s torch. A new precedent was set. Quitters would be portrayed in the most negative light. What player would dare to quit after how Osten was handled on screen? It was unlikely the choice was made to portray Osten so negatively simply because of the producer’s dislike for a quitter, it clearly had more to do with setting an example that no contestant would dare to follow in. While quitters still do pop up, I find it hard to believe that the number of quitters wouldn’t have been reduced by this example.

One thing to keep in mind is that the early seasons of Survivor only featured sixteen contestants. Thirty-nine days, a set number of episodes, with a Tribal vote-off each episode. If even one of your contestants threatens to quit, you could lose an episode, or worse, credibility. The castaway theme could have salvaged a lost episode, but say this was Amazon, and someone quit on Day Thirteen. Tribal is nearly three days away, and you’re now one player down too early in an episode cycle. You’d either have to lose an episode for the season, which could mess up a network schedule, or you’d have to bump up challenges, Tribal’s and everything else for the entire season. This is likely one of the reasons why the number of contestants was bumped from sixteen to eighteen to twenty. Look at the numbers. Only three of the following twenty seasons would feature a sixteen person cast. They had to add extra people as a buffer in the event of a quit or medical evacuation. In the event that this doesn’t happen, they have to hold double Tribal’s.

If Osten’s exit was made an example of, then viewing All-Stars could lead to the assumption that the example didn’t work, as that season featured two quits in only six episodes. But keep in mind that All-Stars was filming before Osten’s exit had even aired and the quits that occurred were very different.

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Jenna Morasca admitted to having regrets about leaving her sick mother to come on the show. From the moment Jeff first asked her how she was holding up, Jenna never wavered on her decision. She left and a title card appeared at the end of the episode stating that eight days after Jenna arrived home, her mother lost her battle with cancer. No viewer was going to question Jenna’s decision to quit after seeing this scene played out.

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Only three episodes later in All-Stars, yet another person would quit, this time culminating in an uncomfortable outburst by Sue Hawk. In an earlier challenge, a naked Richard Hatch had made inappropriate contact with Sue. By the time they arrived at the next challenge, she was an emotion and furious wreck. Despite Jeff’s best efforts to console her and reassure her that Richard was already gone, Sue needed to leave. The incident with Richard was way too controversial for the show to make an example of Sue. Fans always have opinions about whether or not Jenna and Sue should have handled things the way they did, but there’s no doubt the show made the right call in how they portrayed their stories. Their exits were totally different scenarios from Osten and to handle them the same way would have been foolish.

So what about the semi-sacrificial quit of Janu in Palau? The classification of her as a quitter only really comes down to the fact that Jeff made the decision to not hold the vote. Many times in the past contestants had asked to be voted out and had their tribe’s grant them this request. In fact, it had technically happened twice in Palau, with Ashley Ashbee and Jeff Wilson offering themselves for elimination. The only difference is that Janu’s tribe wouldn’t go along with it. So in an effort to take control of her own fate, she quit and thus gave Stephenie another chance in the game. How different is this from Australian Outback, when Rodger Bingham asked the former Ogakor alliance to vote him out instead of Elisabeth? He felt that she needed the money more than he did, so he sacrificed himself to save Elisabeth from elimination. Most have viewed this as an honourable way to leave the game. It’s basically the same thing Janu did for Stephenie. The main difference being that Janu’s tribe mates weren’t willing to go along with it.

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Some will make the argument that Janu was weak and wanted to leave, whereas Rodger didn’t, which may be the case, but the reasons given on screen are identical. Had the Ogakor trio not been willing to grant Rodger his request, is it possible Jeff would have forced a quit out of Rodger? There’s no way to know, but it is interesting to compare the two.

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Kathy Sleckman in Micronesia may be the most interesting quit of all time. Not based on what we saw on screen, which consisted of her being briefly portrayed as an emotional wreck who missed her family. The real interesting story is what we’ve learned since the show aired. As she discussed in depth in her Survivor Oz interview, (https://survivoroz.wordpress.com/2012/04/24/kathy-sleckman-interview/), the real reason had very little to do with this and more to do with her mental state as a result of going off of medication before the show, which she failed to inform the producers of. This interview gives us a totally different story and if you hear Kathy’s explanation of her choice to leave, it’s hard to doubt her decision to leave, but easy to understand why the show chose to hide this. Showing the entire story on screen would have lead to accusations of the producers not being diligent enough in their background checks and psychological evaluations. While again this may have been the case, Survivor’s credibility could have been severely damaged, like what has happened with Big Brother over the years, a show that doesn’t have the benefit of the long term editing that Survivor has.

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Earlier in the season Jonny Fairplay was shown on screen talking about missing his girlfriend and unborn daughter and wanting the tribe to vote him out so he could see them. In reality, there is no way quitting the game would have mattered, as he was still sequestered for the duration of the game without contact with them. Many have speculated why Fairplay really wanted to quit, which is still up for debate, but the fact remains, it would not have been to see or talk to his girlfriend. This is the closest any Tribal Council has come to mirroring Osten’s original quit. Jeff asked if he wanted to quit, and even though Fairplay said it wasn’t a quit, it clearly was. So while it is now known that Osten was basically held up at Tribal waiting for the words “I quit” Fairplay was all but given a free pass by Probst. So why did Probst adamantly state “we are going to vote” as opposed to holding up Tribal for a quit? My best guess would come down to the credibility of the show. Keep in mind that this was the most hyped season since All-Stars and coming off of two quits in that season, a quit on episode one would have cheapened the show and made all returning players look like wimps. I for one know that I would have been soured on returning players much earlier if the greatest villain in the history of the show said “I quit” three days in. Is Fairplay a quitter when it still went to a vote? If the theory that the words “I quit” are forced for the sake of show credibility is true, then yes, Fairplay is a quitter as well. I also have no doubt that if this Tribal played out exactly the same on episode seven, Fairplay would have been strong-armed into a quit.

Of course the most famous season for quitting is now Nicaragua. It is the only season to featured two people quitting in a single episode. Both quitters were handled completely differently in their edits. Kelly Shinn, otherwise known as Purple Kelly, was given the invisible treatment. She went down in history as one of the least profiled characters ever on Survivor. There is no doubt the decision was made to bury Purple Kelly’s character in the edit as a result of her quitting. Was it as a punishment to her personally? Not a chance. Again like Osten, her portrayal on the show has more to do with discouraging future quitters. NaOnka Mixon was given the exact opposite edit. She was without a doubt the most dominant character when it came to screen time and promotion. If this were a scripted show, NaOnka would have been the star, albeit a truly negative villain.

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Why give NaOnka so much screen time while giving Kelly next to none? Probably because first and foremost, Survivor is a show for entertainment and burying NaOnka in the edit would have made Nicaragua a much more boring season. NaOnka was in the center of the most dramatic moments. While NaOnka was obviously given a huge amount of screen time, she was also portrayed in a completely negative light, which was also done as a discouragement for future quitters. No future player would want a Purple Kelly or NaOnka edit. Then there was the controversy of NaOnka and Kelly ending up on the Jury. In defence of the show, they were kind of stuck. The show is planned so far in advance, and with a Final Three already pre-determined and the Jury already three people in, leaving Kelly and NaOnka off would have resulted in a seven person Jury with a Final Three. The possibility of someone winning with only three votes was enough of a reason to keep them on. To protect the credibility of the show, they made the announcement that future quitters could potentially be left off of the Jury, or forfeit their pay. Again because of how the show has to be structured, this would need to be handled on a case by case basis. Not based on personal feelings towards contestants, but based on the needs of the show.

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So this leads us to the recent quit of Colton Cumbie in Blood vs. Water. Yes there are a lot of theories about whether or not Colton quit his first time in One World and whether or not Probst and the show attacked Colton for personal reasons, but looking at Colton’s quit from a production standpoint, a lot of the theories discussed above can apply to how he was portrayed. He quit very early in the game, which especially considering the cases of Fairplay, Jenna and Sue, can easily lead to the assumption that returning players are more prone to quitting. Also consider the fact that returning players are brought back to repeat excitement they added the first time. A returning player quitting is more hurtful to the show than a person who quits on their first go. I’ve mentioned several times that a quit early in an episode causes a lot more problems than someone who quits at the end, as the sole purpose of a show is to tell a story. Colton quitting in the opening moments of an episode is a hard thing to edit around. Sure they have the eighteen to twenty player buffer now, but what about the pace of the episode? Even a big blindside at the end felt like a weak finish in comparison to the drama that surrounded Colton’s exit. Lastly there is the most important issue that brings us all the way back to Pearl Islands. The portrayal of quitters should be presented as a discouragement for future players who may want to quit. Nobody but the production crew really knows how many people have threatened to quit over the years, but I would find it hard to believe that the only ones have been those shown on screen. As harsh as it may seem at times, a negative portrayal for a quitter is the best tool the show has to avoid future occurrences.

It’s clear that every quitter has a different story, and the on screen portrayal needs to be handled differently based on that person’s motives, the credibility of the show and what precedents need to be set. Quitting will never be viewed positively among fans and the portrayal of quitters will never be agreed upon by everyone, but the fact remains that Survivor is a hard show to compete on and after twenty-seven seasons on the air, sometimes a player just can’t cut it. Regardless of their reason, there are much larger things at stake than just personal feelings between production and the contestants.

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What’s your view of quitters? Do you agree or disagree with Colin? Comment below to let us know!

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9 Comments on A Study of Quitters

  1. I really like this article. I think the only quitter that did not have a bit of skeptics about their quit (once it aired), was Jenna M. Rob C. said that he was skeptic that it was too hard as she was struggling around day 32 in Amazon, but once he got home and found out she didn’t quit because it was hard, he regretted it.

    I think Melissa McNulty would have been interesting add to this article.

    Great job. Really enjoyed this article.

  2. I find it hard to believe that in Nicaragua, the producers couldn’t possibly have done a seven person jury with a final 3, since that was the exact makeup of the jury in China, so forgive me for not buying that line of reasoning when it comes to Kelly and NaOnka’s quits.

  3. Really great article, but I regret that you forgot the very interesting case of Dana in the Philippines, whose quit doesn’t look like any other one.

    • Yeah I couldn’t quite figure out where Dana fits in. I’d say if anything, the show chose to treat her as if she were a medical evac, while still making it clear it was her choice to leave. My guess is portraying her along the lines of a medical evac took some of the attention off of the quit.

  4. NaOnka’s quit isn’t only unique in her edit but the fact she was in a great position. She had an idol. She was in the majority and controlling some of the votes. She threw it away because she couldn’t handle the rain anymore which is bizarre. One of the more disappointing quits.

  5. i have a question!! i know when someone quits they’re usually at ponderosa for the remainder of the game. but what about jenna in all stars? do any of you guys know if she went right home? thanks! 🙂

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