Controversy erupted during the Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers finale when it was revealed that nobody would be voted out at the final four and that two people instead would battle in a fire-making tiebreaker instead. That meant that the person who was assured to go home in fourth place, Ben Driebergen, instead made it into the finals, where he beat Chrissy Hofbeck and Ryan Ulrich.
Conspiracy theorists (including a few former players) turned to social media to accuse the show of some shady shenanigans to guarantee that Ben made it to the end, essentially charging the show with coming up with the twist on the fly to get its chosen contestant — and presumed fan favorite — to the million-dollar check.
As someone that has reported extensively on this program since it first burst on the scene in the summer of 2000, I do not under any circumstances believe anything was rigged at the last minute to get a specific player into the finals. In fact, a standards and practices rep from CBS is on location at all times to ensure all issues of fairness are followed. This includes things as small as making certain that host Jeff Probst gives the exact same instructions to all tribes before a challenge. The show takes its integrity very seriously.
That doesn’t mean I am a fan of the final four twist though. While the new wrinkle was not put into place to help the player Ben specifically, it was put in place to help a player like Ben — or Malcolm Freberg in Survivor: Philippines, or Kelley Wentworth in Survivor: Cambodia, or David Wright in Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X — deemed the most worthy to win who then gets cut right before the finals. That’s essentially what Probst told me after the Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers finale.
“This idea came about to solve a problem that has bothered me for years,” said Probst. “If someone plays a great game and gets to the final four, it has always bothered me that the other three can simply say, ‘We can’t beat him so let’s all just vote him out.’ So this year we decided to make a change. If you get to final four, you are guaranteed a shot to earn your way to the end. And if you are the one to win the final four challenge, you are in charge of who you take and who you force to fight for it in a fire-making showdown. And of course, it goes without saying, we got lucky with a huge million-dollar showdown between Ben and Devon. It was electric.”
Personally, I find there being no vote-out at the final four to be a continuation of the slippery slope begun when the show moved from a final two to final three format back in season 13 because the best player was often cut at the three spot, leading to an underwhelming final choice — which, admittedly, was a problem. Probst and I have had a healthy and friendly disagreement about that move for over a decade, and now may get to discuss and debate this latest twist moving forward. That’s because the final four fire-making challenge is not, by any means, a one-and-done thing. “Yes, that will be a new format change, and will appear in next season, Survivor: Ghost Island,” Probst told me then.
But I’m not the only one he told. Unlike the contestants of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, who were blindsided by the move, the players of Ghost Island (which premieres Feb. 28 on CBS) were, in fact, informed of it before the season began and could therefore strategize around it knowing that someone would not be voted out at the four spot.
This became clear when I asked each of the Ghost Island cast members a few days before filming began to name their favorite Survivor twist ever and Bradley Kleihege responded, “I think my favorite twist is the twist at final four where the person who wins picks a person and the other two make fire.” But how did Bradley even know about that twist since the Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers season in which it was unleashed had not even aired yet? Some further digging uncovered that yes, the players were informed by production before the season started about the new twist. But why?
It otherwise would seem a bit odd for the season 36 players to be all shocked and confused at the finale by a final four twist that we, as viewers, all knew was coming. Letting the contestants know about the change in format essentially puts players and viewers on the same page going into the season, which makes total sense.
It now will be interesting to see how the contestants react armed with this new knowledge about what happens once they get down to four players, and equally interesting to see if the show sticks with it heading into season 37 in the fall. While, as stated, I am not a fan of the new final four format, I do think the show needs to continue to take risks and try things out to evolve and stay fresh, and therefore I do not begrudge the producers giving it a trial run for a season or two.
You have to experiment when you are approaching 40 seasons of a show, and there is nothing wrong with a few of those experiments not working out. In fact, it is to be expected. I just personally hope this particular wrinkle is not here to stay. But if it is, the silver lining is that it gives Probst and me a new healthy debate in which to engage, and those are always fun.