16 Years in the Making: New Zealand Reality TV and the Arrival of Survivor


In November last year the Australian Survivor community was thrilled with the shock announcement that a local version of the show would be returning to our screens in 2016. Now merely months after that announcement, our friends from across the ditch have been met with the very same news; that they too will have a chance to compete in their own locally produced version of the show. With Survivor seasons seemingly sprouting left and right, it's only fair that our resident New Zealand Ozlet Nick Chester brings you his reactions to this announcement. Can a Kiwi version of the hit show thrive? Read on to find out!

24 February 2016. I come out of a meeting at work to find a message from the one and only Noah Groves, telling me a New Zealand version of Survivor had been announced. Was this right? Or some crazy ass dream? Turns out this is for real. The article in the New Zealand Herald probably sums up how unexpected this is – “NZ Survivor is a thing that’s happening”. This probably captures both the unexpected nature of the announcement, but also the general malaise from the New Zealand public. Never a nation to be shy about telling you how much they don’t care about your ideas, Kiwis were quick to register their nonchalance that a 16 year old reality show seemed to have tripped over and somehow landed on our shores. There are many questions behind it, and the history of New Zealand’s experience with reality TV only makes this announcement even more surprising. So if you have nothing better to do for the next ten minutes, come with me on a whirlwind journey of NZ Reality TV history and a pondering of how the hell we have got here.

What The???

JasonThingee90’s kids entertainers Jason Gunn and Thingee have been jokingly touted as great Survivor NZ hosts

The announcement of a New Zealand Survivor is completely unexpected. There has never really been anywhere close to a whisper of a Kiwi version of the show at any stage. We may see the light of a new day before anyone else, but we are 16 years behind the play on this one. It just seems so unlikely. As someone who can count the Kiwis I know who watch Survivor on one hand, I am pretty certain it isn’t a must watch show over here, and the way the show has been broadcast at ever more strange and erratic times probably supports this.  This out of the blue announcement by TV2 certainly leaves me scratching my head.

So what’s driving it? I think there may be a couple of factors. As many people will know, when a country wants to show the US version of Survivor, a clause in the agreement to do so used to be that the country had to produce a local version of Survivor. This was Mark Burnett’s way of spreading his product around the world and making Survivor a globally recognised brand. When Survivor was first shown here, it was on TV2. The first 3 seasons were shown there, along with the infamous Australian Survivor. I assume TV2 negotiated that they would show the Aussie version in place of creating their own. Whatever happened, TV2 lost (or gave up) the rights after that, and from Marquesas onwards, it has been shown by TV3 (yes we think outside the box on our TV station names down here). Up until Cambodia, TV3 have had the rights but the show has been broadcast at strange time slots, presumably to lower and lower ratings. Perhaps they have now decided to drop it and TV2 are swooping in to pick it up again, and are renegotiating with the original clause to produce a local version. Unlike Australia, I don’t believe there is a strong a loyal fan base of the show here, so I am surprised that TV2 even want the show. To my knowledge, The Amazing Race has not shown new seasons for a few years here now, or certainly not in any close distance to when they are shown in the US.

AusSurvivorIs there a link between the NZ and Australian versions of Survivor?

Which leads me to the second possibility. With the Australian Survivor being green lit to go back into production, perhaps TV2 see an opportunity to hire the same crew and location, and film a season straight after the Aussie version is done, similar to how CBS film 2 seasons of Survivor in the same location back to back. It makes sense; everyone gets their product at a lower price, able to make a combined deal for costs. I can even see the same tribal council set being used, and challenges being set up twice to save everyone money. TV2 may be taking a gamble that with a decent amount of marketing, people will tune in to watch Survivor NZ. It’s all my own insane ramblings, but I do feel like it makes some sense. Of course this would raise some concerns about the intended quality of the product – if TV2 (and by extension, the Aussie Survivor) are trying to do things on the cheap and nasty, it might compromise the end product. Time will tell. But New Zealand has shown it can do reality TV well when it wants, but the history is a bit hit and miss…

Original Reality TV

PopstarNZ beat the rest of the world to the punch with talent shows like Popstars. It’s not something to be proud of.

NZ reality TV has largely been restricted to poor rip offs of American shows (see below) but there are a couple of bright sparks in terms of unique ideas. If you are looking for a country to blame for the rash of talent shows we now have, New Zealand is your prime candidate. Whilst American Idol was the show that took the idea to international fame, a little show called Popstars was produced here in NZ in 1999. Basically it was a search for members of a girl band, the result ended up being a pop group called TrueBliss, which had some success locally. The Popstars concept was a huge success, and sold internationally and pretty much became the precursor to the Idol phenomenon which swept the globe and eventually ended up back here with two seasons of NZ Idol.

The other idea was Treasure Island, which was certainly a Survivor inspired concept, although it soon became wildly different. If you think Survivor has strayed from the original concept through wacky twists, its got nothing on Treasure Island. The original idea was to have two teams who competed for sections of a treasure map. Each week, the teams competed and the leader of the winning tribe got to eliminate one person from their team and one from the other team – yeah, it was incredibly unfair and stupid. The final 2 players raced across the beach to find a buried treasure chest – first one to touch it won the game and the money. The first couple of seasons were wildly popular but like any fresh reality TV idea, it got stale pretty quickly and producers started to tinker with the concept. When I say “tinker”, I mean completely change it until it made no sense at all.

Some truly weird shit happened on Treasure Island. It was a season that twice had a former contestant return to host the show the next year. It quickly turned into “Celebrity” Treasure Island (I use that term incredibly loosely), and featured our most annoying and ubiquitous mediawhores extensively. Kiwis were in the grip of a fascination with Marc Ellis and Matthew Ridge, former rugby union and league players who were a really stupid person’s answer to Hamish and Andy. They seemed to feature in every season of the show after that. Famously Matthew Ridge was delivered into one season halfway through. I mean that literally. He arrived in a coffin sized crate, and burst out like a jack in the box to the surprise (and probably incredible disappointment) of the other cast members. This also coincided with a change in elimination rules, where players took a Mole-like test on a computer, with the lowest scoring player being eliminated. Of course, this wasn’t at all to rig the show to keep the most entertaining people on the show longer *cough cough*…

HorseMcLeodThe face of a NZ reality TV winner – John “Horse McLeod, Winner of Treasure Island Extreme

But perhaps Treasure Island’s greatest moments came in a season that was tagged as an “extreme” version, where the cast was made up of survival experts and military types who were subjected to incredibly difficult living conditions. The show was won by a guy called “Horse”, and featured players drinking blood to satiate their thirst and a guy literally disappearing after being eliminated. This was seemingly a real situation where the guy refused to go with production after being voted out, running off into the jungle vowing revenge on the players who eliminated him. It took a day or two until he was finally discovered and restrained. Can you imagine this happening on Survivor?!

One Celebrity version of the show was pretty much staged on a resort (so much for any harsh conditions), yet a player still got seriously sick and was in a coma. Yes, Treasure Island was a complete whack job of a show. How it lasted as long as it did is really anyone’s guess. It’s really no surprise that NZ has mostly stuck to adapting other show ideas, and for a small country, we have done it a lot.

Adapting Old Ideas

NZApprenticeThis was a thing. We all wished it wasn’t.

Like a lot of countries, NZ hasn’t been shy to adapt overseas reality shows. And for the most part, they have been atrocious. From our version of The Apprentice (our “Trump” was Terry Serepisos, former owner of Wellington Phoenix football club), to the X Factor, NZ have generally done a crap job with these shows. Last year’s X Factor saw two judges get fired mid way through the season, which was about the only time most of us paid any attention to the show at all.  However, there are some exceptions. NZ did have a series of The Mole in 2001 which was really enjoyable and on par with some of the better versions around the world. And although renovation and building shows are not exactly my cup of tea, our version of The Block has been wildly popular through the 4 seasons done so far. NZ even has its own version of MKR which by all accounts is pretty well produced and compares well with the Aussie version. And even last year’s version of The Bachelor was pretty well done – in the proud tradition of tacky, train wreck style TV that you can’t turn away from.

BachelorNZThe Bachelor NZ was a good Kiwi take on the US version, and just as trashy.

However, I would respectfully say that Survivor probably takes itself more seriously than any other reality TV show, and with good reasons. At 32 seasons, it’s still going strong and has produced some great international versions as well (South Africa is a stand out). This is not a show that will go well if its done as a cheap knock off. So what does TV2 have to do in order to get this right?

Making Survivor NZ Work

PeteAndyCasting good Kiwi blokes like The Block contestants Pete and Andy will keep the audience happy

Basically everything covered by Noah in his Top 10 things that Australian Survivor needs applies to the NZ version as well. To me, this show will live and die on two aspects though – cast and production value. I don’t know what the NZ producers have in mind for their cast, but if they load it up with a bunch of people who want to be famous and have no idea what the game is about. I think this would have worked if NZ Survivor was produced closer to the start of American Survivor, but the Survivor concept isn’t some fresh new idea now – the game has to be at the centre of the show. Casting a bunch of good looking idiots to wander round a beach for 6 weeks won’t work. The cast needs to be diverse and have people who have some understanding of what Survivor is. I certainly fear a One World style cast – big on looks, but not necessarily on brains built for Survivor strategy.  However, this is somewhat complicated by the fact that Kiwi audiences have shown a distaste for anyone who comes off as a schemer on a reality show. Viewers of The Block will know that in between renovating houses, each team compete in mini challenges for various prizes to help with the renovation. Sometimes teams have to score each other, and occasionally a player will strategically score other teams low to ensure they win. This fairly mild act of strategy has been met with derision from Kiwi audiences, with one of the teams last year being shunned by the other teams and dealing with significant fan hate through social media. So how the audience will take to a full on strategy game is something of an unknown factor. Producers will need a cast who can balance between being likeable people who aren’t bland and uninteresting.. There are certain Kiwi stereotypes they will have to hit quite hard in order to make it work – the rugged Kiwi bloke (think JT but with a Kiwi accent) always goes down a treat and can generally get away with being a bit sneaky. Any girl who tries that will most likely be blasted as a bitch straight away, although I think Cirie type characters would probably be better received by the New Zealand public. Us Kiwis have just not had the experience of reality shows with strategic players before. This is going to take some subtlety.

SouthAfricanSurvivorApart from a poorly endowed torch snuffer, South African Survivor is a good example of an international version done well.

The other issue is production. If my fears about the real motivations behind this are correct, then I can see this being done on the cheap. One of the big reasons Survivor has lasted as long as it has in the USA is because CBS puts the resources into the show’s production – and consequently it is one of the best looking shows on TV. If Survivor NZ is done on the cheap, we could end up with a show that looks like Borneo – which was fine in 2000, but not so great in 2016. There have been some great looking international versions of the show, and things like epic challenges and decent tribal council set will make all the difference. Recent efforts would suggest that there is hope. Shows like the Bachelor and The Block have been well promoted and seem to hit the mark with the intended audience. If the right Kiwi audience can be found for Survivor, there’s no reason to think it couldn’t be a hit, even if it’s taken some time to get here.


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