30 from 30: #29 – Survivor Establishes the Three Tribe Format

The Moment:

Survivor finds a new alliance-busting tactic by re-introducing the three tribe format for Survivor: Philippines.

We’re counting down the 30 Moments That Shaped Survivor, events that happened on the show that helped create and evolve the game and the series that we know and love. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. And since these posts are covering the first thirty seasons of Survivor, there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.

Why it Matters:

Once upon a time, in the far off year of 2004, Survivor assembled a cast of 18 former players. For numbers reasons (and the fact that everyone knew each other), the producers decided to mix things up and divide the tribes into three tribes of six, rather than two tribes of eight as had been done before. This seemed like a good idea.

It was never done again.

Actually a 13-episode Bachelor spinoff
Actually a 15-episode Bachelor spinoff

That is, it was never done again until the show’s 25th season- Survivor: Philippines. The show had struggled in the shadow of Heroes vs. Villains, bleeding viewers and interest with a series of shitty seasons that even Rob Mariano couldn’t save. Fans were tired of the same old returnees and bland cast choices. The solution? Dig deep like Probst and find fresh (old) blood.

With a theme of “second chances” (no, not that one), Survivor got previously evacuated castaways to return with a bunch of newbies for redemption (nope, not that one either). Along with the mega-famous fire magnet and promotional trump card Michael Skupin (Australian Outback), Russell Swan (Samoa) and Jonathan Penner (Cook Islands, Micronesia) made their comebacks.* And to solve the logistics of three returnees, the show revived a twist many thought long gone: starting the game with three tribes, with each tribe receiving one returning player.

This guy will come in handy for kindling if you run out.
This guy will come in handy for kindling if you run out.

*[And so did I! On a personal note, this season is the one where I returned to Survivor after a long hiatus, partly because I was bored on Wednesdays, and partly because Skupin was on, and that was such an iconic moment for the show. It didn’t hurt that the casting was strong and the premiere was engaging. So good job, Probst/Burnett.]

By limiting tribes to six players each, the producers hoped to break up a trend of four or five people locking into an alliance and never deviating from that plan. And based on the course of Philippines, that much was successful. With a challenge performance to rival Ulong, the Matsing tribe was decimated until it was down to just Malcolm and Denise. They were absorbed into the two other tribes, Tandang and Kalabaw. Unfortunately, the loser curse followed Denise to Kalabaw. Kalabaw was continually beaten in challenges and entered the merge down 7-to-4.

That’s not to say that Tandang barnstormed their way to the end like many a tribe before. Thanks to the bonds formed earlier, Malcolm and Denise were a hidden power couple that made it to the final four. Three idols floating around from the original tribes caused tribal chaos. A few fiery Kalabaw members (and one not-so-lively dude) wanted to take out returning players.

The proto-Christy bro.
The proto-Christy bro.

While Tandang went deep into the game, they didn’t dominate. In fact, this was the first season since Gabon that the final three weren’t all from the same tribe.

How’d that "no returning player" thing work for you, Jefff Kent?
How’d that “no returning player” thing work for you, Jeff Kent?

The Impact:

After South Pacific and One World featured dominant day one alliances cruising to the end without breaking a sweat (bonded by girl power or religion), the show needed to catch a break. Ratings were dropping. Probst was burnt out. The game seemed rigged.

The power of Christ compels you!


Thankfully, Philippines and the three-tribe format worked like magic. Apart from three tribes helping to create a compelling season, the season showed the power of good casting, and the next non-gimmick season was instantly conceived as an all-newbie, three-tribe season. When that season, Cagayan, proved to be even better—arguably one of the best ever—the show did it again a year later with the various collars of Worlds Apart.

AKA Skeletors vs. Butterflies vs. Llamas
AKA Skeletors vs. Butterflies vs. Llamas

Having three tribes creates opportunities on both ends of production. On the castaway side, the use of three tribes creates smaller groups to test alliances and challenge prowess. You can’t blend in or barnstorm with such a small group. Scrambling players throughout the course of the pre-merge game mixes up alliances and allows multiple combinations of personalities and play styles to be forced together by circumstance.

On a show level, these three-tribe seasons have also benefitted from being 90-minute-to-two-hour premieres, giving us more time to catch up with the individual tribes in early camp life. (Worlds Apart is a great example this, however much the post-merge devolved.) And in the planning stages, it has led to production having to come up with more creative themes than before. Probst and the marketing team had a boner promoting the hell out of Worlds Ap—sorry, White Collar vs. Blue Collar vs. No Collar—as some fantastical cross-section of American life.

I think someone has something to say.
I think someone has something to say about this.

While the creative team tends to recycle themes too quickly (see: Water, Blood vs. and Favorites, Fans vs.), the three tribe format is still fresh enough to provide unexpected results and complicate the numbers game that has come to dominate Survivor gameplay. Attempts to keep a strong alliance usually crumble late in the game. Last season, each of the final three came from different tribes.  And though strong pairs seem to be an emerging strategy, Mike Holloway immunitied his way right through last season. Until someone pulls a Mr. Robot and figures out the hack to this particular format change, it seems to be here to stay through 2016.

Coincidence? I think not.
Coincidence? I think not.

What Else Made the List?

You can view all our 30 from 30 content by clicking here.