Australian Outback – Palau: The Age of Innocence
Early Survivor auctions really were designed as moments of reprieve from strategy, camp life and challenges. They allowed players to relax and enjoy what was essentially a free meal and bid someone else’s money on items of food. I like that early auctions used to play with the local currency (Kenyan Shillings in Africa, for example) – such attention to detail is uncommon now. As mentioned in the introduction, items were often smaller and played on the contestants hunger – four Doritos and salsa is a memorable one from the Outback’s auction. Players were often allowed to pool money and share the reward. This was a feature that made Africa one of the best auctions in early seasons. Generally these early auctions are just fun distractions from the game, and allow you to see the player’s personality and fun side. Big Tom’s dancing when he wins a beer or excitement that Ethan won’t eat the ham in the breakfast they just won together aren’t really anything except character driven, funny moments and it’s great to have them there. Of course another established tradition here is the booby trap item – whether its river water or chicken hearts, the covered item that ends up being some disgusting or mundane item is always good for a moment of comedy, Another established tradition is having letters from home as an item up for grabs – and the Amazon auction kicks this off with a very memorable scene with Christy and Jenna.
Of course these early seasons do have one outlier – the first (and so far only) pre-merge auction where the two tribes bid against each other directly. It’s weird, unusual…and oddly interesting. I can see that this would perhaps not work every season, but would be fantastic on a 3 tribe season, or just used every now and then to mix things up. It’s fair to say that these early auctions were hardly game changing, but fun all the same. But all good things must come to an end.
Guatemala – the game changer
It’s fitting that the season where the auction changes is in Guatemala, the first season to have a hidden immunity idol and former players in the same season as newbies. In a season of envelope pushing twists, adding a game specific advantage to the auction was unexpected and completely changed the outcome of the game. Of course, this action plays out like any other, until an advantage at the next immunity challenge, which Danni is quick to bid on and win. This sparks something of a chain reaction, where she then wins immunity, forces a tight alliance to turn on each other and thereby rip the game apart enough that she can then get a foothold that would carry her all the way to the win. Could Danni have won without this advantage? Who can say, but it seems fairly unlikely.
The auctions that follow Guatemala all attempt some kind of twist with game advantages – this could be sending one player to Exile Island and taking all their money or the advantage at the following immunity challenge. However, we still get some great character moments – the Cook Islands auction tries to give the impression that Penner gets drunk and annoys everyone to the point that he gets voted out, but of course that isn’t quite accurate. The Tocantins auction gives one of the greatest loved ones moments in the history of the show, with Taj almost losing it over her husband being at camp. The rules are a little more fluid here – sometimes Jeff restricts players from sharing money, other times they can. There is also the “shared” prizes, such as a plate of cookies or giant chocolate cake that are designed either for weird but good TV (watching people almost choke on food is meant to be funny I guess) or for tension. This plays out best in Gabon, with the whole Randy-Sugar cookie debacle that Randy would later claim was a “million dollar cookie”. I would say these auctions are less fun but still have some cool little character moments, and the auction is adding something to the show. Will this continue to be the case? Sadly, it’s time to turn a dark corner into terrible Survivor auctions.
Samoa onwards – the age of the Strategic Auction
The Samoa action is fairly innocuous in all fairness, but it does begin the now well established “advantage” reward, where players don’t win food but something that will help them in the game. In Samoa, One World and Philippines, this was an advantage at the next reward challenge, and in fact this was offered in Gabon as well. The difference is that the advantage from Samoa onwards was a pretty much insurmountable one, meaning that winning that auction almost guaranteed you immunity – in fact, Jaison, Troyzan and Abi Maria all went on to win the following challenge. This in itself made for a huge advantage, and by the time Caramoan rolls around, we have finally reached the point where players are literally holding off buying food items to bid on the advantage (at least that was Malcolm’s intention until the beer came calling). Not only that, but Caramoan introduced two advantages – the traditional immunity advantage, won by Cochran and a clue to the hidden immunity idol. Suddenly the advantages are becoming much bigger than the food and in Cagayan, we finally see two players refuse to bid on food at all. Now Jeff is allowing them to spend all their money and draw lots to determine who gets the advantage. It’s may be an entertaining moment, but the rest of the auction is dead boring and those great character moments are all but gone. The same is true in Worlds Apart where 3 players are drawing lots. Surely without some change, we will be looking at the majority of players holding out for the advantage and one or two players bidding on several food items. Whatever fun existed is long gone and it’s time to change the auction or ditch it.
What can be done?
Luckily, I think the auction can be saved but it will mean either fully committing it to game advantages or food – the current mix of the two just doesn’t work. So what ideas could work? Well the most obvious and easy is just get rid of the advantages from the auction and take it back to a more basic structure. This seems unlikely – production likes the added drama that comes with advantages and any opportunity to shake up the game is likely to be pursued more heavily, rather than removed. But there are other options
An “all advantage” auction
No food, just all game advantages. They could range from a clue to an idol, an advantage in the challenge, an extra vote. Make them all out and in the open though. Maybe give players the right to sit someone else out of a challenge, or allow a player to prevent someone else from voting at one tribal council. The auction is generally close to the end of the game so these advantages have to be used quickly. It’s not my favourite idea, but I can see the way the wind is blowing and it’s not towards a return to a more food based, character driven scenes at the auction. If this is where we are headed, just bite the bullet and make it all about the game. For those players not interested, allow them the opportunity to simply sit at a table and eat food while the auction takes place, as we have seen in a few challenges before. Players are either there for food or the advantage and having them compete together for very different purposes is just not good TV.
Combine the auction with the Loved Ones visit
If we are going to have an advantage in the game, let’s make it really hard to turn down the other options. Let’s face it, a game focussed player is not going to struggle to say no to a cheeseburger if it means they survive another round or keep an advantage out of their enemy’s hands. And what is harder to say no to than a visit from your loved one? So I say bring out the loved ones and then have players bid on interactions with them. Start low – $20 for a hug. $100 for an overnight stay at camp, $200 for a private meal, $300 to go on an overnight trip. And then throw in the advantage. Who is going to still be able to focus on the game when their loved one is right there? It would make for great TV, cause drama and give the loved ones a really well integrated reason to be there – it simply hits all the marks it needs to. It also builds on letters from home as a staple at auctions, so it’s not exactly a massive change.
Bring back the tribal auction
Perhaps the best option is to run the auction during the pre-merge section, much like Thailand. You could run it in several ways – like tribe vs tribe, bidding on items. This would be especially fun in a 3 tribe season. You could also throw some interesting advantages in here, like bidding on the right to kidnap the other tribe’s best competitor until after the immunity challenge, or perhaps even permanently. Make players bid as a team on a hidden immunity idol clue (which could be fun if someone already has it).
You could also try the auction as an individual thing during the pre-merge stage of the game. And have players bid individually on items that help the tribe, such as a tarp, fishing gear or blankets, and individual ones such as food or idol clues. This could reveal who is playing for the team and who is more self-interested. To me this is the option that presents the best opportunities top keep the auction fun whilst still having the strategic element that producers quite clearly like.
Like many Survivor traditions, the auction has given us some great TV moments. It has served a purpose, but as the show becomes more strategic, it simply doesn’t work in its current format. Without change, we are fast approaching a situation where all the players turn up and refuse to bid at all until the advantage is presented and then bid all their money, effectively ending the auction. Something has to change and this great part of the show will need to evolve if it is to survive. It isn’t that hard and there are some great ways to play out the challenge while still hitting the character and strategic beats that you want from it. Here’s hoping the changes can be made before the idea becomes all sold out.
What do you think of the auction? What do you think can be done to improve it or is it already fine the way it is? Comment below to let us know your thoughts!
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