It’s Feature Article day on Survivor Oz as Mr. Nick Chester returns with another article, in which he debates whether Hidden Immunity Idol’s are outdated. Nick questions whether Idol’s are becoming to predicable, why the concept needs a make over and what sort of changes he would make! Of course, we want to know what you think, so don’t forget to leave a comment!
The Hidden Immunity Idol, (HII), is very much a part of Survivor now. In fact, there have almost been twice as many seasons that had HII’s than those that haven’t. But how important is the HII now? Can it even be considered a “twist” anymore, or have players become so accustomed to it that they can work around it? It’s interesting that Jeff Probst and other people in production often defend twists such as Redemption Island on the basis that the game needs to change and evolve if it is to remain successful and on the air, which I totally agree with. Yet the Hidden Immunity Idol has not had any significant change since season fourteen.
Like many fans of the show, I have become frustrated at the amount of time HII’s take up on the show, with little payoff in terms of changing the game or making for interesting television. I am always disappointed that time that could be used to build up a player’s story, or develop relationships between the players is instead used for, (in many cases), pointless Idol searches that have to be shown, but really add little to the end product. So are HII just a given, a part of the show that is a constant, even if it has little impact? Or can it be retired, or changed as a twist to make it worthwhile going forwards?
First off, I should say I have always been a big fan of the HII as an element of Survivor. The potential it has to shake up the game is always there, but for a variety of reasons, this has waned over time. One of the main reasons is who is finding the Idol. Through both bad luck, and a bit of bad design, often it is the players in control of alliances and the game in general who find the HII. As Boston Rob has stated, the best way he could use the Idol was to find it and not play it. This meant he knew who had it, and it minimised variance and uncertainty as much as possible. We have seen many other players use a similar tactic, including Kim, Tyson, Sash, Stephen and Coach. It’s hard to argue with this logic but it doesn’t exactly make for thrilling viewing. it’s also noticeable that in seasons with returning players, these players have a much better sense for where to look for Idols and are often looked up to by new players, who pass information onto them about where they are, (think Ciera in Blood vs. Water or Albert in South Pacific). Any fun to be had from a random person finding the Idol and stirring up the game is lost.
Good players aim to find the Idol, but never need to use it. This is smart strategy but boring television.
The other major issue with the Idol is that there has to be long scenes of people finding it, which isn’t always great television. This might explain why it is so easily hidden. It’s easy to see why having a separate Exile Island was scrapped and the Idol is now hidden at camp, because having to show scenes of people looking for an Idol that has long been found is just boring, but inescapable.
A further problem with the HII, and a major one, is that people like to tell others they have it. I think producers never really foresaw that players would find an Idol and then tell everyone, as it’s in their best interests to keep it to themselves in order to surprise people, thereby maximising its effect. It seems human nature and the inability to keep a secret take over and people have to tell others. In Samoa, Russell famously told his allies that he had the Idol, pulling each aside individually to tell them “in confidence”. This was a smart move as it improved the level of trust they had in him, but this is rare. Normally people find an Idol and just tell everyone. What made Malcolm’s Idol play in Caramoan so good was that he kept his Idol secret for so long, even convincing Reynold to give up his first. Sadly this is uncommon.
But the biggest problem I have with the Idol is that players have simply outsmarted how it works, and can now work around it. In a recent article I wrote, a commenter pulled me up on my criticism of the HII, saying that Penner used his successfully. This is true, Penner kept himself safe, but the larger alliance had already planned for this, splitting their voting power and putting votes on R.C., in the event that Penner did play his Idol. This kept them all safe and Penner’s Idol play really changed nothing, apart from the fact he was there to cause more trouble! Later that season, a new alliance did a similar thing with Abi-Maria’s Idol, splitting votes between her and Pete to ensure that an Idol play wouldn’t ruin their plans. And as fun as Malcolm’s Idol play was in Caramoan, it was only successful because he had two Idols and Reynold was safe with the Individual, (or is that personal?) Immunity Necklace. This was an unprecedented situation and highly unlikely to happen again. Much like other twists before it, like Tribe Switches and Final Threes, smart players have had time to see how HII’s work and find ways to outsmart it. There will always be times when things don’t work quite as planned but it’s rare. The players have evolved, but the HII as a game twist hasn’t.
Situations like this are now rare.
Still not convinced? Let’s look at some hard facts.
By my reckoning, there have been forty-five HII’s in seventeen seasons of Survivor, (correct my math if I’m wrong people!). In terms of this article, I’m going to discount the first three used in Guatemala, Exile Island and Cook Islands because the rules of their play are so different from how it has been played since and their possession is a bit like playing a video game with the cheat codes on.
So how have the other forty-two been used? It’s hard to break these down by categories as each Idol play is a little different due to the circumstances. But generally speaking, I would say there are four ways an Idol play works:
Category 1 – A player uses an Idol to discount votes against them in such a way that a majority alliance is shocked, and a blindside occurs. (Examples of this include Yau Man in Fiji or Amanda in Micronesia).
Category 2 – Idol is found by someone, but not used, either because that person gets voted out without playing it, or keeps it until after it has expired. (Examples include James in China or Stephen in Tocantins).
Category 3 – Idol is played, but that person doesn’t receive enough votes to go home. Generally this person is already in power and uses it just because it’s about to expire or just as extra protection. (Examples include Chase and Sash in Nicaragua or Boston Rob in Redemption Island).
Category 4 – Idol is played but the controlling alliance has foreseen this and strategically votes for someone else, or splits votes to ensure that even if an Idol is played, they control who goes home. (Examples include Alex in Fiji or Abi-Maria in Philippines).
It would be fair to say that as viewers and production, category one is the most exciting and interesting to see. But as the graph below shows, this is actually a fairly uncommon way that it is used. Only twenty-two percent of Idols end up having the kind of dramatic impact at Tribal Council in the way production intended. Now think about how much screen time is dedicated to strategy around HII’s. How many scenes do we get of people looking for Idols? Or strategising about how to use Idols, or to split votes to lessen their impact? Is the actual amount they are successfully played justified given how much of the strategy revolves around them? I would argue that it isn’t.
I also accept that an Idol doesn’t have to be played in this way to create interesting television. Obviously moves like the blindsides of James, Ozzy, Andrea and others is entertaining and this was in a large part because they didn’t use their Idol when they should have. But the blindsides of these players would still have been pretty good television, whether they had an Idol or not. When Brendan and Erik were voted out, the fact they left with an Idol wasn’t the most interesting part. The reality is that the Idol doesn’t have nearly the impact on the game that the amount of screen time dedicated to finding it would suggest. Many players will now argue that having the Idol actually brings little benefit apart from in the short term.
So if on balance it isn’t adding anything to the strategy of the game, and isn’t making for much interesting television, why have it at all? As I said at the beginning, I like the HII. I think it has given us some great television and still has the potential to change up the game, but needs to have some sort of change to it if it’s going to justify the screen time given to the other aspects of it besides the ultimate playing of it at Tribal Council. I’m sure if I was speaking to Jeff Probst directly about this, he would ask for solutions, and not just problems! So here are a couple of suggestions:
1. Put an expiry date on the Hidden Immunity Idol
Let’s say that once you find the Idol, you have to play it within two Tribal Councils and then it goes back into circulation. Unfortunately this wouldn’t decrease the amount of scenes of people finding it, (in fact it would probably increase it), but it makes the twist worthwhile, as the Idol can fall back into the hands of people outside the main alliance, and if you only have it for a short time, it’s more likely you can keep it quiet. This also means that the majority alliance needs to split votes more often, just in case someone has the Idol. This leaves smaller margins of error, which can mean it takes less people to flip to change the majority.
An Idol with an expiry date is much more likely to be used as there is no value to holding onto it.
2. Give the Idol different powers
Perhaps instead of Immunity, the Idol could give the user an extra vote, or allow them to deny another player their vote. I believe something similar has been used on international versions of the show. Often the Idol has a short term value but can’t help change the game, and has the potential to be used more strategically than a HII. It also isn’t always possible to mitigate this by splitting votes.
3. Remove the Hidden Immunity Idol, but bestow its properties on the Individual Immunity Necklace
If the holder of the Immunity Necklace can transfer it to another player after the votes are cast, but before they are read, this could have quite significant implications for the game. It means nothing is set in stone and also makes Immunity Challenges all the more important. It means that someone is always a threat as whoever wins Immunity has a lot of power. The potential downside is that it perhaps increases the role luck plays in the game, as the majority essentially have to guess who Immunity may be given to. But it’s a potentially interesting concept all the same.
However the game progresses, it seems a certainty that Idols will continue to be a part of the show. But if the way they were used was made more interesting and the stakes were higher, then who was looking for them and how other players dealt with this would make for much more interesting television and having time dedicated to it would not feel wasted.
Do you agree or disagree with Nick? Comment below to let us know!