It's always a delicate balance with Survivor. When it comes to twists and changes, the show has to evolve and grow, while also retaining the essential spirit and structure that made the program such a cultural phenomenon to begin with. That delicate balance has always extended to casting as well.
The entire concept of Survivor began back in 2000 with the conceit of dropping 16 strangers off on an island together to see how they built a mini-society while simultaneously competing for a million dollar prize. And that conceit remained unchanged for the first seven seasons. Then came Survivor: All-Stars.
Instead of bringing 16 strangers together with no prior knowledge of each other or connections, All-Stars returned 18 former players — many of whom had appeared on the same seasons or mingled at various social events. While All-Stars ended up being something of a letdown, the initial burst of excitement at seeing winners like Richard Hatch, Tina Wesson, and Ethan Zohn compete against each other and other notable players such as Colby Donaldson, Jerri Manthey, and Rupert Boneham was off the charts.
Robert Voets/CBS/Getty Images The Mogo-Mogo tribe on 'Survivor All-Stars'
Ever since that moment, Survivor has toggled between seasons of new players, installments of returning ones, and merging from pools of both newbies and all-stars — with the question always being: How often is too often to bring players back? The answer has varied. At the height of returning player mania, six of the eight outings between season 20 (Heroes vs. Villains) and season 27 (Blood vs. Water) featured at least two returning players.
The pace slowed somewhat after that. For the 12 installments between season 28 (Cagayan) and 39 (Island of the Idols), Survivor brought back returning players only 3 times. That then led into the most anticipated all-star battle ever, season 40's Winners at War, which pitted 20 former champions against each other for a record $2 million prize. Executive producer and host Jeff Probst described the season as the end of an era, which begs the question: What era are we in now? At least when it comes to returning players?
Survivor's "new era" has also coincided with a new era in casting thanks to CBS' diversity mandate that every unscripted cast be at least 50 percent people of color. While seasons 41 and 42 included several controversial new production twists such as the Hourglass and Do or Die wrinkles, the casts themselves were universally praised, and not just for their diversity.
Robert Voets/CBS Linia Wallace, Xander Hastings, Deshawn Radden, and Danny McCray at Tribal Council on the 11th episode of 'Survivor 41'
Both groups of all-new players were fun and fought hard, making for entertaining TV each and every week. While the current Survivor 43 season has lacked fireworks and some of the intriguing interpersonal drama of the previous two campaigns, it once again features a likeable collection of personalities and people for whom to root. For his part, Probst gives all the credit to the Survivor casting team.
"As Survivor superfans know, there have only been two casting producers in our 22-year history," he tells EW. "Lynne Spillman was the first. She was there from day one and found some of the most iconic Survivor players of all time. She's a legend and the first inductee into the Unscripted Casting Hall of Fame. Then Jesse Tannenbaum took over and with his team has found some of the most electric, likable, diverse, layered players of the modern game. So many of them are on our list for a second shot at some point."
Ahhhhh… "at some point." But when exactly will that some point be? Since Probst was so adamant about starting a new era of the show after Winners at War, it's a pretty safe assumption that means at least four straight seasons of all-new casts to build up the roster of contestants to bring back — meaning one should not expect to see familiar faces when Survivor 44 premieres March 1, 2023 on CBS.
So, if that is the case, when will we see former contestants heading back to the island? "To your question about a season of returning players," Probst says, "the truly honest answer is we don't know. We are definitely open to returning players, from any era, but we don't plan that far ahead. Right now, we like the excitement of new players, but you never know when an idea will spark and we'll be picking up the phone to start calling former players, hoping they say yes!"
Robert Voets/CBS Jeff Probst on 'Survivor 43'
Players from before season 40 will certainly enjoy hearing that they are still in consideration to play again, and that invitations will not be extended solely to new school contestants. But if Probst is not going to tell us when they are bringing players back again, let's go ahead and make an educated guess ourselves.
Since Survivor first brought players back for All-Stars in season 8, the most seasons they have run in a row without bringing at least two players back is four — season 12 (Panama) through 15 (China). So if Survivor 44 is indeed all newbies, that would match the franchise's longest streak of shunning returnees. Does that mean Survivor 45 will feature some past favorites? Not necessarily, if recent history is any guide.
Survivor films two seasons back-to-back every year, and all four of the seasons featuring returning players since season 30 have been on the back end of those double dips. (Survivor: Cambodia was aired as season 31 but was actually filmed after Kaoh Rong and put on TV first due to the fan voting Second Chance element). Filming these seasons on the back end gives producers and casting extra time to secure talent, and also allows them to invite players (like Zeke Smith and Michaela Bradshaw, to name two) from the odd numbered season on the front end to come back immediately while fan interest in the person is still sky high.
Which is why we are guessing that Survivor 46 (airing in the spring of 2024) could be the first time in the new era that we see returning players back on the beach. Based on all the evidence, it just makes too much sense not to happen. Of course, since Survivor is famous for its curve balls and twists, that is precisely why it probably won't.