Since day one, the Survivor casts have been the primary task of one person, Lynne Spillman. Few people have been around for that long. Even the show’s producer, Mark Burnett, has put a lot of distance between himself and the show as the years have waned. If Jeff Probst is the known quantity that has been there since the very beginning, Lyne Spillman is like the puppet master working her magic behind the scenes. Without her, there’s no telling what the show would look like.
For years, Lynne’s work has been done without much recognition. This could all change in 2017 because this year for the first time, the Emmys have added a category for “Outstanding Reality Series Casting” and Lynne has been part of the inaugural nomination class. Lynne will be competing with casting directors for Born this Way, Project Runway, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the Voice.
Lynne is the only person to be the sole nominee for her show. There’s good reason for that. Lynne, Jeff and finally Les Moonves, CBS’ head boss, get the final say when it comes to all things cast related for Survivor. They form the triumvirate that officially get to decide the lucky members of a Survivor cast.
Think about how much times have changed since the early days of Survivor. She has claimed that for the first season, Survivor barely even got any applicants. Back then, hopeful contestants would have to own a camcorder and send out their videos by VHS. Lynne would be locked in a room with thousands of tapes and have to go through each and every one of them to find the right people for the show. Now, all you need is a phone and the click of a button. Instead of being buried in physical tools, Lynne gets a barrage of emails and still has to go through the same process of watching thousands of tapes to select 16–20 people. It’s a painstaking job that never gets enough recognition.
Like the show itself, Lynne is a trailblazer in the field of reality television. Outside of her work for Survivor, she has also been the main casting director for every season of the Amazing Race.` Between both shows, she must be approaching nearly 1000 people cast on a television show and so many more people that have been interviewed to potentially be on a television show. To say that Lynne has had a huge hand in shaping the reality TV landscape is an understatement.
She is up against some great competition. RuPaul’s Drag Race and Born this Way are both influential shows that have done a lot of great work in educating people about topics that few people have experience with. The Voice has been a ratings dynamo since it began. Project Runway is to fashion shows what Survivor is to competition shows. Any of those casting directors could theoretically win the Emmy but above all of them, Lynne deserves this recognition not just for her recent stellar work but her lifelong dedication to Survivor and reality television.
For many fans, there was what is considered a “dark age” of Survivor coming out of Heroes vs Villains and extending through Caramoan with a few exceptions here and there. During these seasons, there were some twists that made for lesser television, like Boston Rob vs Russell Hantz, and some of the casts were not as explosive as they had once been. People started to sour on the show and a lot of fans bemoaned the olden days when it was still an untouchable figure in the world of reality television.
Seeing the change in sentiment around the fanbase, Lynne put in amazing work. Since Cagayan, she has delivered some amazing casts filled with different personalities (World’s Apart being the exception for some people). In the “modern era” of Survivor, Lynne has introduced us to people like Tony Vlachos, Aubry Bracco, Tai Trang, Jay Starret, Adam Klein and David Wright. She has found legitimate villains like Scot Pollard and Kyle Jason.
The show has thrown out some themes that made people grumble like Brains vs Brawns vs Beauty or Millennials vs Gen X but that hasn’t deterred Lynne. She has found people that went outside those boundaries set up by the show’s theme and cast complex personalities that really pop once they are on a television screen. Jay is a favorite recent example of mine. At first glance, he seems like the typical surfer dude who gets on the show for his good looks. Pre-game, most had him pegged as somebody in the Joe Anglim strand. As it turns out, Jay was one of the more complex and deep players on Millennials vs Gen X. He was able to strike a chord with the entire fanbase despite being an alpha male which is an archetype that does not usually get much love with the internet fans. All of that was probably no surprise to Lynne, who knew what she would be getting out of Jay once he got on the island.
It’s that ability to see through veneers and estimate the type of person one would be on the show that makes Lynne so talented. She isn’t fooled by people trying to play a character at casting calls and she knows what comes off as authentic and genuine. 17 years doing the same job will kind of train you for these things. She said it herself in an interview she gave for the LA Times in 2010,
What’s most interesting to me about casting is that we have an expert at finding people, we have psychological profiling, . . . but at the end of it all, it really comes down to a person sitting on a couch, talking about life. And you can tell — 90% of the time we’re right — by the way they tell you a story about what they did for lunch if they’re going to be compelling.
In a single sentence, Lynne sums up why she is good at what she does. It’s an instinct that she has and it can’t be taught. That instinct has been key for so many of my favorite memories watching television. Were it not for her, I would never have gotten to see the dead grandma lie but Lynne saw Jonny Fairplay at a gas station, got the feeling he would be right for Survivor and recruited him to be on the show. That’s natural talent. That’s Emmy worthy.
For 17 years, Lynne has never gotten any recognition for her work. With this new Emmy, we have a chance to reward her for the first time. Let’s hope they get this right and that on September 17, Lynne hears her name called out as the first ever winner of the Emmy for “outstanding reality series casting”.