A contestant on Alone wears a fur hat inside a structure and smiles.
(Photo: Courtesy History Channel)

Why You Can’t Stop Watching Survival TV

A contestant on Alone wears a fur hat inside a structure and smiles.

There’s a reason that reality shows set in wild places hold our attention: we can’t help but imagine that it’s us out there. This is especially true when we watch Alone, the hit series on the History Channel that has contestants truly by themselves in all kinds of brutal environments, doing their best to both survive while also filming themselves. This raw approach to voyeuristic entertainment ultimately make us empathize with these hungry, tired, and frightened people—so much that we just can’t stop watching.

This episode of the Outside Podcast is brought to you by Yeti, maker of ultra-durable coolers, bags, and drinkware designed to go anywhere you want to go. Learn more at YETI.com.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be on one of those reality TV wilderness survival shows? Like, you're on your couch watching and you, think, "What would I do in this situation?" Or, "Could I hack this for even five minutes?" 

Lots of us have these thoughts. I think it's just normal to imagine yourself out there as the one trying to survive. 

Fred Dreier: I'm standing on the banks of some gorgeous river watching this helicopter disappear above me. I'm thinking about all of the jobs that I have to do before. The weather gets bad and before I start to really get hungry 

Michael: If it was you, in the wild all by yourself, what would be your biggest worry?

Fred: Shelter, access to clean water, build a fire, secure short-term food, medium-term food, and then hopefully long term hunting grounds or fishing grounds.

Michael: What would it feel like to be out there? Kind of scary, right?

Fred: I'm completely terrified and horrified. All these hardships are kind of on the horizon. 

Hunger is coming and cold is coming and all these discomforts, 

Michael: And there's one more thing, maybe the scariest of all: How are you going to look to the millions of people watching you go through this on TV?

Fred: I hold this camera that I've just learned how to use. And so I'm like kind of nervous about whether I actually hit the record button the requisite two times instead of one.

Mike: Yeah, that part would be tough.

Because here's the thing: all those folks watching you from home, they're kind of obsessed with you. This is especially true if you're a contestant on Alone, the hit series on the History Channel.

I'm Michael Roberts, and this week we're going to try and figure out what makes Alone a uniquely addictive TV show. 

That guy you heard describing his fantasy... or, really, nightmare, of filming his own survival epic is Fred Dreier, Outside's articles editor. Fred is a certifiable Alone fan boy, and he's been covering the show for us for some time now. Honestly, he brings it up in almost all of our story meetings.

And so we, his curious and mildly concerned colleagues, decided to explore his passion for Alone. We figured that, if we can understand what hooked Fred, we'd learn a lot about why this show grabs so many others, and what that might mean for the future of survival TV.

Producer Paddy O'Connell took on the assignment of diving deep into Fred's brain and reporting what's going on in there.

Here's Paddy.

Paddy O’Connell: We both tell stories about incredible outdoor folks and events. Why are we here today talking about a television show?

Fred: I mean, why is alone so engaging? It's the emotional side. It’s the competition side. It's the fact that they, these people, are all regular people and they're sharing their experiences and their feelings. It's the yurts and the structures. And it's the watching them fishing.

It's not just one thing or two things that make the show just really fun to watch and really engaging on a level that you might not get from watching, like the Kardashians or whatever.

Paddy: Fred Dreier has been in love with Alone for several years now. Why? For starters, he latched onto the basic structure of the show: contestants head into the wild 100% by themselves and try to endure brutal environments for as long as they can. 

Fred: 10 cast members who are real life bushcraft experts or people with like primitive skills training are dropped off in remote sections of wilderness on their own. One by one. They can each bring 10 survival tools with them. You have a radio.

And the rules are pretty simple. If you have to call for help, that means you're quitting.

The last person to remain wins the grand prize, which is half a million dollars. 

Cast members bring their own camera gear out there.

Big cameras, small cameras, chest mounted, cameras, GoPros, that type of stuff. 

And they're told like, you know, a big part of your experience out there is you have to film the most important moments.

Like if you're about to kill an animal, you can't just go and shoot it. You have to set up the cameras, you have to turn on a camera, you know, you have to capture footage of your daily life.

These are not professional camera people. So sometimes yeah, the camera angles are a little weird you're not getting the best angle of them, like shooting a muskrat or whatever.

Paddy: Fred has written a number of articles for Outside about Alone, including bimonthly recaps of the ninth season over the summer. And next in his queue is Alone: Frozen Before the Freeze, a spinoff that launched in September that follows survivalists in Labrador, Canada, and Alone: The Skills Challenge, another spinoff that is what it sounds like.

If you haven't watched Alone yet, you are, well, sort of alone. It's one of the most streamed shows on the interwebz, and also routinely ranks in the top cable tv programs. According to Fred, this success is due largely to the show's authentic take on survival scenarios. 

Fred: While other outdoor reality shows sort of do have elements of the like procuring food or hunting or building shelter or doing things that are very difficult, Alone has that extra element.

Which is casting people who are real people from this world of like wilderness survival and bushcraft, you know, they're not trained TV personalities, they're not so guarded that they're like not gonna spill their guts. 

When your whole life is reduced to just three or four basic things, there's real emotion attached to that. It's not just like, ah, you know, Burger King's closed. I'm gonna have to go to Taco Bell. 

It's like, oh, I'm not gonna eat the next two days. 

All the conflict is like people dealing with their own internal conflict or like man versus nature, style, conflict 

Paddy: Maybe you're thinking that Fred is so enamored with Alone because he just looooves the entire genre of wilderness survival TV. But that's not it. In fact, he hasn't ever watched much TV, and he always thought reality TV was just dumb.

Fred: People would talk about Survivor and reality shows, Kardashians and stuff like that. And I just thought that was total mind, numbing trash. And I remember watching a couple episodes of Man vs. Wild or Naked and Afraid, and none of them ever did anything for me. I just thought they were so based in gross out moments or just sort of seemed, I wouldn't say fake or contrived, but just sort of seemed like scenarios that you would never find yourself in.

Like me as a person in the world would never be like, well, I'm stranded in the Atlas mountains and I have to catch a Viper and skin it and cook it in sand and eat it.

Paddy: Doesn't really speak to you.

Fred: Totally. They didn't speak to me. Um, and the reality thing in general just didn't speak to me at all.

Paddy: So how does an occasional TV-watching dude who rolls his eyes at reality shows end up falling in love with Alone? Well, let us go back to the summer of 2020.

Fred: This is the early phase of the pandemic,

Paddy: Right, right.

Fred: I think I was still wearing rubber gloves from home Depot when I

Paddy: dish gloves.

Fred: Yeah. Dish gloves when I'd go to the grocery store and like a viser. And my wife and I were at home with our eight month old child. And every night we would put her down knowing that we just had a gnarly night ahead of us just knowing that we're probably gonna be up between two to five times in the next eight hours.

And we were just like blowing through shows, cuz there's nothing else to do. And sure enough, we fire up Netflix and there's some preview on, that shows a couple scenes from Alone season six. And I had never heard of the show. I thought it was like Naked and Afraid. I thought it was gonna be some hokey thing about, oh, these survivalists, you know, they're nude and they're, icing out there like junk they're living in the Arctic or whatever.

Paddy: Yeah, totally. 

Fred: We finished that first episode and we're immediately like, do you wanna watch episode two? I think we blew through that entire season in like three or four days, just like it sucked a hold of us.

We wanted to know what happened next. Then we were like, oh, well there's five whole other seasons here. So we immediately went back in time and watched season one, season two, season three, season four, like back to back to back. So basically that summer of 2020, we just became these total alone nerds.

It was strangely relatable. We were living in isolation. We were living through this somewhat extreme period of our own lives with having an infant home and every day is kind of a challenge and a struggle.

And then seeing people on the TV screen who are enduring really difficult challenges and who are out there by themselves. 

Like I would never be able to relate to these people who are like chopping down trees to build a tent and like hunting muskrats out in the middle of nowhere.

But for this weird slice, this weird moment in time of my own life, this is relatable.

Paddy: But what began as a feeling of connection to wilderness survivalists during a uniquely challenging moment in history soon grew into a much deeper relationship with the show. As Fred tells it, he found himself really admiring how the characters on Alone were able to get through gnarly situations using only their wits, their limited tools, and whatever they can find in the woods. And let me tell ya, folks. Fred... he reeeeally adores the folks on this show. 

Fred: We found ourselves getting attached to the people who were like creative artsy fartsy survivalists.

A-frame lean-to with multiple stories. She built a sauna

This is like Swiss family Robinson style.

You're like, wow, look at you. You have a shelf. This is nicer than my house feels sometimes. 

It's like cribs, but for survivalist types.

Kylin Marone, she caught a fish. She's on top of the world. Like, I don't think I've ever been that happy about anything. Callie North, the alone MacGyver 

And meanwhile, this guy, Lucas is like, I'm gonna build a guitar. 

Jose who built this just beautiful kayak. The thing ended up tipping over and Jose ended up in the drink and he had to drop out. But still, like it was this brilliant piece of craftsmanship.

Everyone's bringing, you know, the latest and greatest Goretex or puffy coats And Nia went out there with like this buck, skin coat that she had knitted for herself.

Oh my God, this poor gal is having a real emotional moment. Cuz she like, wasn't able to shoot a moose.

Everyone's just kind of like hunkering down and surviving, 

Fred: Part of the joy of watching alone is saying, God, I wonder how I would do out there. 

Paddy: So how in the heck does one create this very different type of adventure reality show? To find out, Fred called on Alone’s Executive Producer, Ryan Pender.

Fred: What kind of footage and stories did you think you were gonna get back? 

Ryan Pender: We didn’t know. It was super exciting, but it was also terrifying putting cameras in the participants' hands that aren't trained producers.

It's not just turning on a camera and pushing a record. It's how do you tell that story? How do you not get the VHS tape from your dad of your graduation in 1984? 

We get them to this location, but how do we get enough footage back that we are gonna have a compelling TV show?

Paddy: The answer to that question coming after the break. 


Paddy: Recently, Fred Dreier, Outside's articles editor and an obsessive fan of Alone reached out to the show's executive producer, Ryan Pender, to ask about the process of making a survival series that stands out in a crowded space due to the simple fact that it feels really raw.

Ryan didn't create Alone. The early concept was brought to him by executives who wanted to try something new. In an early conference call with the History Channel, they decided on a rather bold approach.

Fred: At what form was the idea when it came to your plate?

Like what was like, kind of decided and what was still sort of amorphous about the idea? 

Ryan: I mean, it was always, it was like, the idea was always no gimmicks and that was always, the bones of the show. The anti-reality survival type show. 

How do you make that in the most honest way possible? 

And the answer was pretty simple. It was remove, the production crew. And just let these folks document their own journey. 

Paddy: Participants are truly alone out there. While there are safety precautions for contestants like scheduled health checks, emergency radios, first aid kits, and temperature and movement monitoring devices inside the DIY shelters, their survival is truly up to them. As is their footage, which Fred says was Ryan's goal all along.

Fred: He has worked on shows where afterwards you feel a little queasy the producers are responsible for creating some of the drama.

And then a lot of it also gets put together in the editing bay. And it is sort of this distorted contorted version of what actually happened out there. 

He views Alone as the antithesis sort of the antidote to that.

There are no producers in the wild with them. There's no one filming these people. And before they go out there, they like do this week bootcamp where they're trained on how to use the cameras. 

It feels less contrived than, the Real World or, Jersey Shore, or these other sort of contestant competition based reality shows where there's a drama and someone's getting in a fight and someone's upset about something.

And you're like, oh, this is the product of a bunch of people living the same house, getting boozed up every night. And like producers pulling the strings. 

Paddy: Of course, part of the reason reality tv producers manufacture drama is because they know they'll have a clearly defined story, even if it's a phony one. So when Ryan Pender sent 10 survivalists out to Vancouver Island with a bunch of camera gear for season one of Alone back in 2015, he didn't know what the hell he was going to get back. 

Ryan: We didn't even really know how much footage we needed back to create a show. Right. Because it's, again, it's different when there's a professional shooter capturing what they know they need, opposed to somebody who is just rolling a camera all the time.

Cause that's pretty much what we ask for. We ask them to record, record, record, and then we will, we'll bring it all down.

So that year it was something like we got maybe 750 hours. Which sounds like a lot. And if you take that compared to now, you know, we're, we're getting back over the course of a season three to 4,000 hours with the footage.

But if you also recall season one, like six people came out very, very fast and were like, oh my God, is there a show here? Until the last four folks .and you know, of course we got all this amazing footage back.

I remember there were a few folks. I was like, I don't know if I can teach them how to, to use a camera because they just never, they don't use technology.

They still have flip phones at the time and, you know, didn't even use the cameras on them. It just wasn't, it wasn't their thing, but I was also proved wrong. 

Specifically Alan Kay, who I love and adore.

And I remember coming in and saying, there's no way I can teach Alan how to shoot the camera just because he, it, it was everything he wasn't, he just wasn't a camera guy and, and teaching those basic things. And I remember talking to, to my bosses and, and saying, ‘I, you know, I can't. I don't think I'm gonna be able to teach him.’

And oddly enough, some of the most compelling footage we received was from Alan K of season one. 

Paddy: Gripping footage, wild locations, and relatable creative characters have captivated Alone audiences and managed to make it rise to the top in the reality TV pile. But that does not insulate Alone from criticism, which Fred addressed with Ryan.

Fred: something I heard was, you know, it's just a matter of time before an Alone contestant dies. I'm curious if you've ever gotten that question before and like what your thoughts are around that.

Ryan: Our checks and balances are far and wide. Our safety precautions are far and wide. Our response times are under an hour. We're able to monitor, to a degree, what's happening.

We try to intercept anything bad that can happen. You know, before it turns really, really bad. It is, you know, it's a show of, you know, of life and limb is when we'll remove you. But, you know, we do have ways of being able to monitor you, you know, we can see what the temperature is in your shelter.

And we know if it's, you know, 10 degrees out for 20 days straight, or you haven't moved in a while, you know, we need to come in and check on you. so I think what you don't see behind the scenes is our robust safety infrastructure. 

Fred: What about the gender divide? You know, there's never been a women's champion. I had some people contact me and say, ‘they should do an all women's season.’

You know, is that something that you guys have talked about?

Ryan: Sure. We always, I mean, we always go in, uh, and try and find, um, the most compelling characters is to start gender divide certainly is one of those things.

You know, we've talked about an all women series, it's always a topic of, of interest.

You'll see, interestingly enough, on, on Frozen, is half and half men and women. Traditionally in this world, you will see majority of men, you know, doing the survival elements and there's a lot less women doing this as well.

So we're always trying to figure out how could we get as many of each person get 'em together and, but the best rise to the top. So if there's more women out there that, uh, feel like they've been bypassed by our casting, please send, you know, updated, reels. 

We're always thinking, uh, of, of what are, what else we can do.

But, that's really, the secret sauce is, is finding. a cast diverse enough and strong enough, but also, relatable enough to everyone who's watching.

Paddy: All told, from casting to shooting to editing the show, Ryan says a season of Alone takes nearly a year to produce. He believes that all that effort is what makes Alone stand out. 

Ryan: It's a show that I feel really, really good about. I feel like we've had a very honest show.

I don't see it as a reality show. I see it as a very much of a, of a documentary. 

Yes. It's survival. Yes, in theory, there's, there's stakes of money, but really what it's about is just about everybody's personal story.

The great thing about Alone is that people aren't watching it to feel good about themselves.

 They're watching it to learn about themselves.

Paddy: That might sound like a marketing pitch, but he's not wrong here. I started watching Alone recently and I loved the scenery, the structures and tools that participants built, the funny moments.

But, the more episodes I watched, the better I understood the real reason that Fred and millions of other people have become obsessed with the show. 

When you see someone go through a brutal test of survival skills and psychological endurance, through footage that they captured themselves, their story grabs hold of your emotions. 

Fred: If this show were a bit more superficial and surface, it would just be the scenes of people fishing and killing their food and building their shelter and staying alive out there. 

But, it has a lot of heart. It has a lot of heartfelt moments. 

What happens is after weeks and months out in the wilderness, the camera sort of becomes the therapist 

The first month you're there. You're so busy building your shelter, finding your hunting grounds, collecting food, racing against the calendar. But then it's like month two and okay, not eating as much and there's not as much to do. And, you're dealing with hunger on a daily basis and all of a sudden, like that's when sort of the isolation starts to set in and, it ends up becoming this like very emotional and cathartic experience and they have this camera there. And the person is like talking into the camera and you are able to sort of see their inner thoughts.

Elements of your life and people you've lost and people you've loved and happy moments and sad moments.

That makes it a lot more interesting because you start to see like, well, what is driving this person to endure starvation and freezing temperatures and bug bites and all this misery.

And it's like, well, you know, it's, they're doing it because they have like trauma in their life that helps drive them. Or they're doing it because like, this is actually the best moment in their life. 

Paddy: So, yeah, Alone is a ludicrous made-for-TV survival competition for a huge cash prize. But something different happens out there in the woods to these people trying to get through it all by themselves. And then something happens to you, watching from home on your comfy couch. 

Fred: I just think back to season seven, the guy who ends up winning Roland, we who's like, he's like a human grizzly bear.

Like he builds this house out of 200 pound boulders. He chases after a muskox and stabs it to death with his bare hands. He eats the stomach contents from it. I mean, he's just like a hard-as-nails guy. 

And it's like day 98, day 99. And he just starts talking about his dead mom and, the feelings he has about like having left home young and not really had a lot of time and space for his parents and never being able to really relate to them and having lived this, you know, hard life in the outdoors, but never really having an appreciation, for what his parents and his mom did for him.

And, also sort of how he is sort of an awkward person. And even when he's around other people, he feels alone. And like, you're just getting these moments of catharsis from this guy who you're like, wow, you're like a robot who is designed to kill animals and build shelters and like live in the wilderness.

But even you man, like even you have like a squishy interior, it just took a hundred days of like almost starving to death and being frozen in the wilderness to get to it. But like, you know, Alone got to you too.

And like that's just different. And that's like a level of sort of reality, like It's like, it's aspirational. It's, it's inspirational.

Michael: That was Outside magazine articles editor Fred Dreier, talking about his obsession with the show Alone with producer Paddy O'connell. 

You can read Fred's many stories about Alone on Outside Online. His piece about Ryan Pender is in Outside September/October print issue.

Episodes of Alone's new seasons are available now on the History Channel and at History.com

This episodes was written and produced by Paddy O'Connell, and edited by me, Michael Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver.

This episode was brought to you by Yeti, maker of ultra-durable coolers, bags, and drinkware built for the wild. Check out all their offerings at YETI.com. 

This episode was made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn more about all the benefits of membership, including access to Gaia GPS, an app that lets you confidently navigate trails around the world at OutsideOnline.com/podplus. We’re offering new members a 50 percent discount for a limited time.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.