Behind the Scenes: Spoiling Survivor: Cook Islands

Welcome Survivor fans. Many of you might be interested in seeing some of my other posts about reality telvision, including this one about the racial politics around Cook Islands and this one about the behind the scenes politicing that shaped Big Brother: All-Stars. Now back to the original post:

Most of you probably don't have a clue where the next Survivor series is going to be set (answer: Cook Islands). Yet, there is a hardcore group of fans which has already pieced together detailed information about the location, including photographs of the Tribal Council site and the location of the first challenge. From these pictures, the Survivor fan community will be able to piece together a great deal about the forthcoming series. Even as we speak, other members of that community will be trying to ferret out the names and identities of the contestants (well before they are announced by the network) and others still will be trying to extract information from people on the ground in the Cook Islands who might have seen something or overheard something during the production. They call themselves spoilers.

Mark Burnett acknowledges this contest between producer and fans is part of what creates Survivor's mystique: "With so much of our show shrouded in secrecy until it's broadcast, it makes complete sense that many individuals consider it a challenge to try to gain information before it's officially revealed - sort of like a code they are determined to crack. While it's my job to keep our fans on their toes and stay one step ahead, it is fascinating to hear some of the lengths these individuals are willing to go." From the beginning, the producers have run misinformation campaigns to throw fans off their tracks. There is a widespread rumor within the fan community that the producers now offer bonuses to cast and craw for every boot or event in the series which doesn't get "spoiled" by the fans. If true, this policy reflects the reality of a world where fans pool money and send reporters to snoop around the location, pumping hotel clerks and maids for anything they can learn.

I devote a chapter to "Spoiling Survivor" in my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The chapter takes you deep inside this fan community, showing some of their techniques for getting information, and discussing some of the debates that erupted when a guy who went by the user name "ChillOne" claimed to have known the outcomes of a Survivor season before it even reached the air. The ChillOne story, which structures this chapter, focuses attention on the issue of whether spoiling is a goal (that is, find out what you can how ever you can) or a process (put your heads together with lots of other people and solve a puzzle). Some have argued that ChillOne broke the game -- making it a contest to see which individual can access information rather than an issue of how a collective intelligence community can solve complex problems through collaboration and information sharing.

Wezzie and Dan Bollinger run a site called Survivor Maps, which is primary focused on the locations where the series takes place. But their maps become important resources for all kinds of other spoiling activities. Here's a little of what I say about them in the chapter:

"Wezzie" is one of the most respected members of the Survivor spoiling community. She and her partner, Dan Bollinger, have specialized in location spoiling. Offline, Wezzie is a substitute teacher, an arboretum docent, a travel agent, and a free lance writer. Dan is an industrial designer who runs a factory which makes refrigerator magnets. They live half way across the country from each other but they work as a team to try to identify and document the Survivor location --- what Mark Burnett calls "the seventeenth character" -- and to learn as much as they can about the area. As a team, Wezzie and Dan have been able to pinpoint the series location with astonishing accuracy. The process may start with a throwaway comment from Mark Burnett or a tip from "somebody who knows somebody, who knows somebody, who works for CBS or a tourist company." Wezzie and Dan have built up contacts with travel agencies, government officials, film bureaus, tourism directors and resort operators. As Dan notes, "Word gets around the tourism industry very quickly about a large project that will be bringing in millions of American dollars."

From there, they start narrowing things down by looking at the demands of the production. Wezzie describes the process, "We look at latitude, climate, political stability, population density, road system, ports, accommodations, attractions, culture, predominant religion, and proximity to past Survivor locations." Dan notes, "In Africa I overlayed demographic maps of population, agricultural areas, national reserves, tourism destinations and even city lights seen from satellites at night. Sometimes knowing where Survivor can't be is important. That's how I found Shaba Reserve." Wezzie is the people person: she works their network to pull together as much data as she can.

"Then Dan works his magic!" Dan has developed contact with the Denver-based Space Imaging Company, owner of IKONOS, a high resolution commercial remote sensing satellite. Eager to show off what their satellite can do, IKONOS took snapshots of the location for Survivor: Africa Dan had identified from 423 miles in space, and upon closer scrutiny, they could decipher specific buildings in the production compound including the temporary production buildings, the tribal council site, and a row of Massai style huts where the contestants would live, eat, and sleep. They take the snapshots from space because the security-conscious Burnett negotiates a "no fly zone" policy over the location.

Dan uses the comsat images and sophisticated topographical maps to refine his understanding of the core locations. Meanwhile, Wezzie researches the ecosystem and culture: "[On Survivor: Marquesas] I spent approximately 3 hours every day, 7 days a week on the computer or studying maps and travel guides.... I studied a topographical map of the island to familiarize myself with the roads, horse paths, rivers, waterfalls, bays, beaches, reefs, settlements, mountains and hills....I researched the marine life, diving spots, water temperature, tradewinds, windward and leeward sides of the island, the effect that goats have had on the island, the local artisans and businesses, local sports clubs, Marquesan dance, tattoo, rock art, tiki, tapa, cannibalism, ancient sports and games, eatable plants, flora and fauna, local government, studied the Polynesian voyages, learned about copra, monoi oil, and nono's, and followed the route of the tramp steamer, Aranui. I kept a dictionary of terms, e.g., "meae", "tohua", "heva", "paepae", "tahuna", "mana", and "tapu". All that I learned I shared on Survivor Maps and other internet websites." Such information helps viewers to develop a deeper appreciation of what the contestants are going through and what kinds of resources they might draw upon.

And, after all of that, they still sometimes get it wrong. For example, they focused a lot of energy on a location in Mexico, only to learn that the new series was going to be filmed in the Pearl Islands near Panama. They weren't totally wrong, though--they had identified the location for a production company filming another reality television series.

This weekend, I caught back up with Wezzie and Dan Bollanger, to learn about what is going on as fans gear up for yet another installment of CBS's still highly successful reality television series.

What are we looking at when we see these new images you have posted on your site? What can you tell us about where these images came from?

Dan: Most of the images we post are taken by locals and tourists visiting the location. If we are lucky, we get a few people who like a challenge of taking photos of the excitement in their neighborhood.

What kind of response have you gotten from the fan community?

Dan: For the most part, we get rave reviews. Spoiling the location is something that generally ocurrs between airings, so there isn't much going on in the online forums. And, people get excited learning about the new location and theme. At the same time, there is some competition between the various websites since each wants to be the first to uncover some new information and claim the credit. Despite what others may say, the spoiler websites guard their sources well.

What kinds of information have people been able to gather from these photographs?

Dan: You name it, they find it. I'm often amazed at what people read into a blurry photograph. This time around we've learned what Tribal Council and Exile Island will look like, which reveals the theme. And, from the photo of an early challenge, it appears that it begins with four tribes, since there are four 'masts' each in a different color.

What will be the next steps for you in tracking down additional information about the Survivor location?

Dan: Right now, we have called it quits for S13. We have done what we set out to do. Find the location, get the maps, find the camp locations, and get the first photos of Tribal Council. We'll be gearing up for S14 in a few months. The summer is Survivor duldrums for Survivor Maps.

The book describes the way spoiling operated during Survivor:Amazon. What changes have taking place in the spoiling world since that season?

Dan: I don't see changes happening in a Darwinian sense. It is not like spoiling is evolving and refining. Rather, at least for Survivor Maps, we work with what resources and leads present themselves and do the best we can. For instance, contacting tourism officials for information may work one time and not another. Topo maps may be available online for free, as was the case for Cook Islands where I obtained the map in a matter of minutes,

while for Marquesas I had to wait for four months and could only pay with Francs.

Wezzie: Something interesting happened during and after Survivor Palau. A newcomer named mersaydeez posted every detail of the show (who won rewards, where they went , what they ate, who got booted, etc) week after week. Many fans enjoyed reading her posts, particularly those who were playing the fantasy games. Other fans were not as pleased.

While mersaydeez was treated respectfully, in the months following, a number of fans complained that they didn't like having spoilers handed to them on a platter. They'd enjoyed being part of the spoiling (guessing) process, and mersaydeez's posts had made the process obsolete. Spoiling Survivor Palau was not collective intelligence gathering. Many left the community. Others formed private boards to discuss the show with a few friends vs on the public board, Survivor Sucks.

I left the Spoilers section of SurvivorSucks and joined The MESS Hall Tribal Council, where the motto is, "May we always be a little bit wrong.". MESS, as it's called, does old-style spoiling, e.g., vid cap analysis. Despite what has been posted on other boards, MESS members take pride in the fact that they come to their own conclusions. They collaborate, discuss, research and share. MESS is an intelligent and cooperative community that is gaining in popularity.

Thanks to Wezzie, Dan, and Henry for their help in pulling together this post.