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Interview: Survivor SA's Nico Panagio is more than the face of the show

Nico opens up about how his role as the host of SA's toughest competition show is more gruelling than it seems, and he shares his thoughts on the top 3 ahead of tonight's finale
Thu, Sep 16, 2021

"I get asked often whether my life on Survivor South Africa involves popping up to officiate at a Challenge, sitting around and having a chat at Tribal Council and then heading off to the pool to relax," says Survivor South Africa: Immunity Island host Nico Panagio.

"The reality is quite different, where all the crew work 12-16 hour days – sometimes longer – for 39 days, having arrived long before the shoot starts, to begin preparations."

Panagio – now having hosted six of the eight Survivor SA seasons for M-Net – plays a pivotal role in the structure of the show's narrative.

Arriving on location 10 days before the game starts to acclimatise and prepare, he spends plenty of time filming promotional content, clips for the web team and the like – and any off-camera time is spent preparing, largely by co-writing the script.

While the show is unscripted, the production team have to find a way to tell the story of each Castaway's journey, so there are some guidelines to each Challenge and Tribal Council, in light of where each of them find themselves in the game.

"I get the basic outline from Handrie [Basson, Survivor SA Executive Producer] and rework them in terms of how I'd word the Challenge explanations and such," he says. "We also test the games at each Challenge the day before the Castaways play them, to understand and tweak them to make them as testing as possible – that helps me hone my explanations further."

Panagio and Series Director Leroux Botha often play the games themselves, competing against each other to understand the complexities the Castaways will face.

"We have to be prepared for every eventuality as there's no re-shooting of a challenge – we shoot them like a live show. The commentary also needs to be organic and in-the-moment, so I have to stay on my toes all the time in terms of what needs to be said, by reacting to changes in the game as the Castaways play."

Preparation for Tribal Council is more challenging, as the Castaways are often switching allegiances right up until the seconds before they walk onto the Tribal Council set. "We have an overview of what's been happening in the game in the lead-up to Tribal Council, but things change rapidly," Panagio says.

"Just before Tribal, Handrie and I will have a meeting to see where things stand, so we have an outline and know what we want to touch on – but it really does need to be an organic conversation around the fire, so the Castaways tell their own story.

"If things get feisty, I can decide when to let it play out and when to interject to bring it back on course – there's a safety net of sorts, but it usually does its own thing."

While he has Basson in his ear to alert him to technical directions, he largely gets on with the conversation himself. "I watch everyone's faces and listen intently to what the Castaways are saying – and I need to be aware of reactions and decide whether I want to follow up on them with other questions," Panagio says.

Survivor South Africa has travelled to a host of exotic destinations, from Panama to Malaysia and Mozambique to Samoa – but the Wild Coast provided some of the show's greatest challenges so far.

"We're used to tropical storms coming in and playing havoc with the game, but the Wild Coast weather really came at us and surprised everyone this year,: Panagio says.

"The location is almost like an extra character in the game and the Wild Coast really provided an exotic, beautiful, treacherous backdrop to this season. International productions of Survivor should be looking at the Wild Coast as the perfect location for future shoots if they really want a beautiful setting – and difficult tests – for their Castaways and the game."

Having entered to play the game in the first two South African seasons, himself, Panagio has an appreciation for the quality of the gameplay we've seen throughout the eight seasons – and rates this season's Castaways as some of the best the show has seen.

"Look at our Final Three – who would have thought these would be the three sitting there? It's beautiful to see how unpredictable the game as been – a single slip or a second's inattention is all it takes for a Castaway to lose their grip on the game, like Kiran did."

Here's Nico's assessment of the Final Three who will start the last episode with it all to play for:

Nicole

"She came out of nowhere and suddenly started dominating the game, proving that you don't need to have the most intricate gameplay – there are other ways to ensure you make it to the end.

"She's pulled it out when it counts – she's an explosive little stick of dynamite and an amazing example of a powerful South African woman."

Anela

"By rights, he should have been out of the game long ago, yet he's managed to dodge his way to the end, playing a great strategic game and doing well enough in Challenges.

"He's played the game with the Final in mind, stepping back from some great gameplay when it mattered and taking the interesting tack of crushing other people's gameplay just because things weren't going in the direction he wanted."

Chappies

"He has been playing hard – and in many instances, he understood that the only way to progress was to win Immunity. It's tough to fault his play – he's been a Challenge Beast, he's played it smart socially and avoided many an ousting because of his social game.

"He's also dodged several bullets with his quick thinking at Tribal Council and on the basis of the three Survivor Pillars of Outwit, Outplay, Outlast, he's probably scored the highest of the Final Three across the board – but the Jury still has the final say.

"It'll be an incredibly tough decision for them to make, no matter which two Castaways sit in front of them at the Final Tribal Council, because all three of them going into the final episode have played such different games."

  • Catch the two-hour finale of Survivor South Africa: Immunity Island on Thursday 16 September, at 7:30pm, on M-Net (DStv Channel 101)

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