This story about “Survivor” first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Comedy/Variety/Reality/Nonfiction issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
As one of the programs that helped create the genre of reality TV, “Survivor” was a constant presence in the Emmys’ top reality categories in the early 2000s. Between 2001 and 2006, it was nominated for Outstanding Reality Competition Program four times and its predecessor category, Outstanding Non-Fiction Program (Special Class), while “Survivor” host and producer Jeff Probst won in the first four years that the Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program existed.
Then came a remarkable stretch that found the pioneering series landing lots of nominations for cinematography, picture editing and sound editing, but nothing for Probst or for the show itself in the top program category. That finally ended this year when the show received its first nomination in 17 years in the Outstanding Reality Competition Program. TheWrap interviewed Probst via email about the return of “Survivor.”
Why do you think Emmy voters recognized the show again after years of mostly being recognized for cinematography, picture editing, etc.?
I really don’t know what inspired the nomination after so long. Maybe it was our most recent season (“Survivor: 44”), which was really well received, or some have suggested it might have been inspired by the podcast we did where we took listeners inside the technical aspects of how we make the show and the why behind our creative decisions. Whatever it is, we would love to know!
You essentially revamped “Survivor” after Season 40 to create a faster game with a more intricate system of twists and advantages. Now that you’ve had four seasons of the “new era” “Survivor,” are you happy with the changes? What worked best and what needed to be tweaked in Seasons 43 and 44?
Yes, we are very happy with the new format. Some of the changes were made as a reaction to shooting during COVID, but the larger reason was because we felt that after 40 seasons it was time for a refresh! It’s one of the great things about the “Survivor” format: As long as you stay within the box of the format you can have a lot of fun exploring the edges.
So we intentionally designed Seasons 41 and 42 with a new approach. It was one of the most liberating experiences because we gave ourselves permission to try new ideas without any judgment or fear. Generally speaking, we are very happy with the new game design. We believe there is still a lot of room to grow and explore this new version and every group of players finds new ways to tweak the game and the twists to their advantage.
As for what didn’t work, there were some ideas that just went too far. Things like Change History and Do or Die pushed the envelope further than we were comfortable, so we got rid of them. But going back to the idea of giving yourself permission to fail, you can’t find the edge until you fall over it. Hopefully this won’t be the last time we go too far with an idea. It’s essential to continued growth.
In Season 44, you had a medical evacuation on Day 1, and another player left because of injury a week or so later. And those weren’t the only players who clearly had trouble with the demands of the show. Do you worry that the faster, shorter show with fewer amenities is placing too big a physical burden on the contestants?
It’s a fair question and observation, but I don’t think the conclusion drawn is accurate. Bruce (Perreault) hit his head because he didn’t duck. Matthew (Grinstead-Mayle) fell and hurt his shoulder because he chose to climb a large rock formation. Neither injury had to do with a faster pace or tribe supplies. I think both situations were player specific. Both Bruce and Matthew attacked the game with a lot of energy, and if you talk to either of them they fully own that it was their approach that led to the result.
I actually feel the opposite about fewer tribe supplies being too difficult. In fact, the more we play this new version, the more convinced I become that the limited supplies approach, while certainly difficult, is absolutely doable and adds more complexity to who you keep and who you vote out.
Am I right in thinking that tribal councils descend into chaos more often than they used to, with contestants suddenly breaking into groups and changing their strategy based on what’s been said?
I think you’re spot-on that tribals are more alive and unpredictable than they were in early seasons. And after seeing quite a few of these live tribals play out over the recent years, I feel there is enough data to form an analysis.
Here’s mine: This new game play at tribal is merely an evolution of game play. In the very early seasons, the style of play was to form an alliance, hold strong, stick with the plan and vote someone out. That worked for a few years. But that approach wouldn’t work today for two big reasons.
First, today’s player is much more aggressive and savvy. They are playing multilevel “Survivor” before they even hit the sand. Second, the number and variety of potential game-altering advantages that could be in the game create so much uncertainty that even the possibility of their existence causes chaos about what could happen. This forces the smart player to be in a constant state of assessing the situation based on all available information, including an unexpected comment from another player at tribal. This leads to a constant reassessing of their plans, which means the outcome is never certain until you write a name down on the parchment.
I don’t see that ever changing because if you stop paying attention and you believe you’re safe … it’s probably you going home.
Read more from the Down to the Wire: Comedy/Variety/Reality/Nonfiction issue here.