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There's no other show on TV quite like Survivor. And no other show had to contend with more to get back on TV during the coronavirus pandemic. While it's one thing to resume production in places like California or New York with an all-local crew in the age of COVID-19 (as pretty much every other series did), it's another thing altogether when you're filming in Fiji with an international crew of 400 people traveling from all over the world.
Survivor 41 (premiering Sept. 22 on CBS) was originally supposed to begin production in March 2020… right before the world shut down. And then the waiting began — for viewers, at least. For the producers, it was a yearlong quest to get the gold standard of reality TV production back on the air — a quest that started with a letter from host Jeff Probst to the crew on March 11, 2020, announcing the first of what would turn out to be many delays to filming.
"Due to the growing short-term uncertainty surrounding the global spread of COVID-19 and the corresponding desire for the continued well-being of our amazing crew, we have decided to push back our start date for Survivor season 41," Probst wrote. "Our intention is to begin production after the S40 live show. Therefore, subject to new information, our new planned start date for production would be on or about May 19th, 2020."
However, it would soon become clear that filming in Fiji in May 2020 was not going to happen. And now, Probst walks us through the 12-month journey to get cameras back and rolling, a journey in which many time frames and options were discussed — including the somewhat radical one of filming the show domestically for the first time ever. "It was March 2020 when we made the official decision to postpone shooting Survivor 41 in Fiji," Probt tells EW. "We immediately turned our full attention to finding another location and even considered shooting domestically in Georgia or Hawaii."
While Hawaii would seem to offer the tropical vibe Survivor is known for, the fact that Georgia (which has become a major filming hub over the past decade) was a possibility is even more intriguing, especially if the show would have been unable to lock down a secluded waterfront area and therefore would have traded in the beach backdrop for a more forest-like setting.
But every time producers zigged, the pandemic would once again force them to zag. "It was a daily battle of whack-a-mole," says Probst, "as every time we thought we had a potential spot, COVID would surge and we would be back to square one." Finally, after realizing their options had been exhausted, Probst hit the breaks. "After trying to shoot in the summer and then again in the fall of 2020, we finally made the decision to wait it out and resume production in March of 2021 back in Fiji."
That was the easy part. Once the team decided to head back to Fiji, they still had to figure out how to head back to Fiji. For a production used to tackling large obstacles with a military-like precision, this was an undertaking greater than any multipronged marooning.
"The first big hurdle was establishing our COVID protocols," Probst says. "We worked with the Fiji government to create what was essentially a large bubble that consisted of several islands — including tribe camps, challenge locations, Tribal Council, and base camp. This extended bubble would be our home for the next many months. Once every crew member and player had quarantined for 14 days and received a negative test, we were able to move freely between those islands, with no risk, because it was only our crew and we were all safe."
Of course, moving freely had its limits. "The one big downside is that for the entire shoot we were never able to leave the bubble or interact with anyone from the outside," says the host. Now that the show had a plan in place, they still had to figure out how to get the people who make the show into the country.
(Photo: Robert Voets)
"The second big obstacle was getting our 400 international crew members into Fiji," Probst notes. "Not only did we have to charter our own jets, but the restrictions regarding which countries were allowed into Fiji kept changing week to week."
And that meant some of the team had to sit these two seasons out. "Sadly, we were unable to get our crew members from the U.K. and South Africa into Fiji," Probst says. "Of all the obstacles we had to contend with, this was the most impactful and emotional, because we wanted our entire team together and we knew everyone wanted to get back to work. It might not seem like a big deal, but we are one big family, and it just didn't feel right. Regardless, that was the reality, so we dealt with it."
Predictably, even the best-laid plans were thrown into chaos. "The entire preproduction process took several months and was literally a day-to-day battle to keep it all straight," Probst says. "I would get phone calls every few days from the team and the entire plan would have changed again. But in the end, our Survivor executive team and our COVID team did it! They are the primary reason we were able to shoot Survivor 41.
While the crew experienced more behind-the-scenes stress, drama, and trauma than ever before, they also experienced the euphoria of overcoming each and every roadblock to get Survivor back on TV. "When we were all finally out of quarantine, you could feel the gratitude from all of us to be back together and making the show we love," Probst recalls. "I'm not exaggerating when I say I've never felt anything like it in 21 years. The energy was 100 percent positive. I was smiling every single day and enjoying the players and the game in a really fresh way. I think you'll feel it throughout the season. Survivor is back, and we're going to have fun!"