Jeff Probst on Why ‘Survivor’ Needed a Makeover After 40 Seasons

TheWrap magazine: “We wanted the players to have to reassess everything they thought they knew,” the producer and host says

Jeff Probst Survivor

A version of this story about “Survivor” first appeared in the Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

The statistics are formidable: 22 years, 42 seasons, 626 contestants, more tribal councils than you can shake a stick (or a torch) at, more puzzle pieces than all the preschools in California put together. Granted, those last two aren’t actual statistics, but you get the point: “Survivor,” one of the shows that essentially created the reality-competition genre, has been around for a long time.

And Jeff Probst, who has been the show’s host since the beginning and an executive producer for most of that time, knows that it’s not easy to stay fresh. That was one of the keys for Seasons 41 and 42, which found the show not only mixing up the game play more than usual but also dealing with issues of race and privilege in unexpected ways.

Probst answered TheWrap’s questions via email from Fiji, where he’s in between Seasons 43 and 44 of the show.

During the Season 42 finale, you referred to the last two seasons as “new era” “Survivor.” Was it clear to you that the show needed to be revamped in some ways, and what were your priorities as you thought about changes?
Yes, we knew well in advance that our 40th season would be the end of an era in terms of how we play the game and produce the show. I think CBS was probably a bit concerned as to why we would dramatically change something that was still getting a good rating and fans were still enjoying, but we’ve always believed in taking chances and trying new things and CBS has given us the permission to fail. That’s huge. If you’re comfortable with the risk of failure, it opens up a lot of possibilities.

From a game design point of view, I felt we had done a good job of exploring the nooks and crannies of the current format for 20 years and we wanted to give the players a totally new game to figure out. That’s where the fast paced, dangerous, 26-day version emerged. It’s a completely different game and the players are still figuring out how to maximize the twists and tilt the game in their favor.

The other reason it’s important to keep things fresh is for your team of storytellers. They need to stay inspired too!  So, we extend the same permission to fail into the edit bays where our teams know they can try new ideas regarding scene structure, playing with time or using high-speed shots in places you might not expect. We’ve extended that same permission-to-fail philosophy into our shooting of the show as well.  For instance, we’ve gotten riskier with our drones, giving them permission to try and pick off a hero moment in the middle of a challenge, accepting the risk that we might lose a great piece of audio in the process.

We believe that energy translates to the screen and ultimately to the audience.

You mentioned the show’s twists, which have gotten increasingly intricate. Do you worry about getting too clever with the increasingly complex series of twists, changes and advantages?
This is a very fair question! Yes, there is always the risk of going too far. It’s a real risk. And the scary part is that you can’t change it after you’ve done it. So, it goes back to being comfortable with the risk of having a massive failure. We knew we were going big. And we anticipated that fans and players might think it was a bit too much out of the gate. But we wanted the players to have to reassess everything they thought they knew about “Survivor.”  Everything.

And we also believed, and still believe, that a big part of accepting a new game is simply getting used to it. In that sense, it’s no different from learning to play poker for the first time. It can feel very complicated until you learn the rules. But to your point, we are constantly assessing what is and isn’t working. If we sense something isn’t working, we examine it to see if there are any adjustments we can make and if ultimately, we can’t figure it out, then we abandon it.

From dropping your usual phrase “come on in, guys” to the tribal councils that have turned into long and thoughtful discussions of race and privilege, “Survivor”is clearly examining itself more these days than it did in the past.
Speaking only for myself, I’ve always seen “Survivor” as a reflection of our culture. That is a big part of what has kept me so wildly enthusiastic for 22 years. The game is the MacGuffin. It provides a framework that forces behavior from the players. That human behavior is what we’re after.

When we went back into production for “Survivor 41,” we were in the midst of true cultural upheaval.  It was such a powerful time to shoot “Survivor” because we had a group of players who were of the moment and the moment was undeniable.  So it was inevitable that those topics would find their way into the game. “Survivor 41” and “Survivor 42” provided some of the most emotional and moving moments of any season in our history.

The great thing about the “Survivor” format is there is so much latitude regarding where you take the show. There are other international versions of “Survivor” that would never let it get political. They want to keep the game fun. We look at it differently.  Every single person involved in our storytelling follows the same guiding principle: Tell the story of what happened.

When we spoke years ago, you said you almost left the show after Season 19. What keeps you around? 
I love people. I love human behavior.  I am fascinated by our decision-making process, our ability to justify our ethics, and our resiliency.  At my core, I am a writer first and I love being a part of telling these rich, layered stories of humans taking on a giant adventure and pushing themselves further than they ever knew they could go.  This job may not appeal to everyone, but for me I truly believe it’s the greatest professional job I’ll ever have!

One would assume that by this point, you’ve seen it all. How often during the filming of a season are you shocked by something that happens in front of you? Any recent examples? 
It’s a great question and it happens frequently.  The moments aren’t always big in scale, but they are clear reminders that no two humans are alike.  All the experiences of our lives, from the time we are born, shape us into these unique beings.  Which is why you could play the exact same game, beat for beat, year after year, with new players and never get the same result.

What are the show’s priorities going forward from here?
Here’s the truth: We work really hard to deliver a big, prime-time adventure show but with stories that often turn on tiny moments of human behavior.  So, for all the talk of game design and twists and advantages, “Survivor” lives and dies with the people we put on the show.

 We just finished one of our most celebrated seasons, 22 years into our run.  It was the people that made it special. So that’s our biggest job.  We have to continue to find interesting people who want to take on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure and let us tell their story.

Read more from the Limited Series issue here.