Host Jeff Probst Always Wants ‘Survivor’ To Reflect Society

The executive producer is celebrating 20 years of the show that has dumped 590 people on remote islands and examined the human condition.

Jeff Probst has seen a lot in his 20 years as host and executive producer of “Survivor,” a competition series that could be credited with ushering in and sustaining reality television.

He was there when Sue Hawk famously waxed poetic on snakes and rats in Season 1. He was as gobsmacked as anyone when he learned Jonny Fairplay lied about his grandmother’s death in Season 7. He was visibly concerned when Caleb Reynolds suffered heat stroke in Kaoh Rong and had to be medically evacuated. He sat horrified at tribal council as Zeke Smith was wrongly outed as transgender by Jeff Varner, who thought silence represented “deception” in the game.

But it wasn’t until last season that the show entered uncharted territory when Probst and producers chose to eject a player from the game. Castaway Dan Spilo was accused of inappropriate touching by a few of the female competitors, most notably Kellee Kim, who was booted from the show after other women exaggerated personal stories to further their gameplay. Many wondered why Spilo remained on the show for so long knowing Kim’s complaints were justified and caught on camera.

“I feel like we handled and dealt with that actual situation and I don’t have anything else to add,” Probst told HuffPost when asked about steps the network is taking to ensure a safer environment. “But, in general, ‘Survivor’ will always be a reflection of our culture. And people say, ‘Oh, it brings out the worst.’ But, it brings out everything. It brings out the best, it brings out the worst, it pushes you to your limits, it makes you stand up and cheer, or it can make you cry.”

“We should slowly be evolving the game to reflect society,” he added. “That’s where we’re heading right now. We need less villains and we need more root-able people.”

Jeff Probst addresses previous champions on "Survivor: Winners at War," the 40th season.
Jeff Probst addresses previous champions on "Survivor: Winners at War," the 40th season.
Timothy Kuratek/CBS

“Survivor” surely reflects society with its casting. So far, 590 people from diverse backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses and age groups have competed on the series. There have been winners of different races and ethnicities; champions both young and old. All while the governing body of producers throws twists and turns their way, the latest being the introduction of “Survivor” money.

And Probst is the true observer, and control, of this ever-evolving behavioral experiment.

I have also been watching. A die-hard fan of “Survivor” since I was 11 years old, I consistently field comments about my unexpected obsession. “That show’s still on? And you still watch it?” Yes, it’s thrilling television, a true study of the human condition. It makes me constantly ponder, “Could I survive on an island for 39 days with complete strangers, and without proper nourishment?” (Heck yeah! Probably not! But I still dream of the challenge.) I’m captivated by the social interactions — the friendships, the backstabbing, the rivalries. I’m also in tune with the psychology of the show and how certain learned behaviors seep into each stretch, for good and bad.

So when I spotted Probst, alongside unexpected buddy Dave Grohl, at a Sundance Film Festival party in Park City, Utah, last month, I couldn’t miss a chance to chat with him in the flesh.

I stoked myself up and revealed to him that I tried out for the show. I mentioned my career as an entertainment reporter; he graciously talked with me about the audition process and urged me to send in another tape. He even obliged my offer to continue our conversation over the phone.

During our interview, Probst was eager to focus on the show’s groundbreaking run, which continued Wednesday night as the 40th season premiered. The series has 20 of the most beloved champions duking it out for the title of Best of the Best and the largest cash prize in the history of reality TV: $2 million. Previous winners like Ethan Zohn, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Jeremy Collins, Parvati Shallow, Tony Vlachos, Kim Spradlin, Yul Kwon and Wendell Holland have returned to outwit, outplay and outlast their toughest competition. Even fan-favorite married couple Amber and Boston Rob Mariano, who met and got engaged during the “All-Stars” season in 2004, are back, proving the new season is set to be a standout that showcases the differences between old-school and new-school strategy.

“The world’s upside down. There’s so much tension and we’re going to be in an election. I want underdogs. I want likable people...”

- Jeff Probst on the future casts of 'Survivor'

For Probst, the gravity of it all didn’t sink in until he saw “Survivor” royalty walking up the beach in Fiji. It was a moment of gratitude as he watched individuals he had championed for years come together to honor the show’s decadeslong history. Probst is a softy, even if his tough, khaki-covered exterior screams otherwise.

“It bums me out when players get mad at me or feel like I don’t like them. I’m their biggest fan,” he said. “But sometimes, I become the dad that you can’t please or the principal who’s pissing you off with my rules. That’s just my role on the show. Inside, the reason I say dig deep all the time is that’s what I’m wishing for you. We’re not going anywhere, so go for it. You can do anything. Just keep trying.”

Probst knows a thing or two about perseverance. It was one fateful day in the late 1990s when he heard TV producer Mark Burnett on the radio talking about the tried and true concept of “Survivor”: a group of contestants are sequestered on an isolated island, divided into two “tribes” and left to face off against each other in grueling physical and mental challenges. The goal is to avoid tribal council, where castaways will be voted out until a jury of axed contestants decides which person deserves a $1 million prize and title of Sole Survivor.

Upon hearing this, Probst called up his agency and told them he wanted to schedule a meeting with CBS. “I’m the guy,” he told Burnett, who was skeptical. The network wanted someone more recognizable and, at that point, Probst was rather unknown. But when it came down to him and New Zealand TV personality Phil Keoghan, Probst’s live experience and passion for the project, as well as a “flirty” interview with Sandra Bullock on “Access Hollywood,” got him the gig. (Keoghan went on to book “The Amazing Race.”)

Since then, Probst has hosted 582 episodes of “Survivor,” and won four Emmys in the process. And, like him, a lot of the crew members have been on deck since the beginning, including challenge producer John Kirhoffer, writer Charlie Parsons, composer David Vanacore and craft services chef Mary Anne Houston.

“We’ve had the same creative team, in essence, for most of our run, which is crazy when you think about the fact that this is a show that shoots from the jungle and people leave their families every summer to come do it again,” Probst said of the five-month production schedule. They film two seasons back to back in that sprint. “A big part of the reason that it still works is that we just go for it. We trust each other, and the players trust us.”

Reliability is a hard thing to come by on “Survivor.” Forging alliances, spilling secrets and spreading lies are all a part of the gameplay. Even the producers test boundaries by introducing, as Probst calls them, “fucked-up twists,” to switch up each iteration. The latest season, for example, sees the return of the controversial Edge of Extinction, which earned its fair share of criticism when it debuted last year. Edge is a remote island where eliminated players go if they want a chance to get back in the game. In Season 38, Chris Underwood ended up being crowned the Sole Survivor after being voted out third, fighting his way back and winning over the jury. Some were disappointed by the results, others were enthralled. But Probst stands firm behind the concept of Edge, saying it represents “a spiritual death and rebirth” for contestants.

“In terms of people criticizing it, that seems appropriate. Not every idea is going to please everybody, and especially if it’s a big idea,” Probst said. “But if you want to turn the page and start a new chapter, or actually have something you can dig into, then it’s got to be big. And I understand people who wish the game would stay the way it was, but I would say, objectively, as somebody who does this for a living, I don’t think you’d like it as much as you think.”

Jeff Probst extinguishes Chris Underwood's torch at Tribal Council on the third episode of "Survivor: Edge of Extinction."
Jeff Probst extinguishes Chris Underwood's torch at Tribal Council on the third episode of "Survivor: Edge of Extinction."
CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

Even though the predictable formula sustains an audience, it was clear to Probst and company that additions were needed in order to up the ante. That’s when hidden immunity idols and secret advantages came to mind. “People say all the time, get rid of idols,” Probst said. “But if I asked you for your top 10 favorite tribal councils, they would all involve idols! You hate the twist, but you love what came of it.”

As for bringing back Edge of Extinction, producers wanted to make sure the winners who returned for this anniversary season had a fair shot and solid reason to risk their reputations and put their lives on hold.

“There’s a bit of a quid pro quo,” Probst said, noting that a lot of the contestants now have young children at home, which only adds to the desire to win. “Every player knew going in that there would be some version of a second chance island. But what nobody knew was it was going to be a very different Edge of Extinction, where your actions directly impact what is happening in the game in a very big way.”

The difference centers on a new form of “Survivor” currency: the fire token. Each player starts out with one token and earns or receives more throughout the game. These tokens can be used to buy strategic advantages or luxury items like coffee, pastries, tarps, blankets and pillows. If voted out, a castaway must bequeath their money to another player. But on the Edge, players are able to trade things like immunity idols for tokens, so they, too, can use money for personal gain ― namely a comeback in the game.

“This is the idea of evolving a society,” Probst said. “We looked at it like any economy ― let’s create a federal reserve, which is us, and we’re going to put so much money into the game. Then, we’re going to force a supply and demand situation. With that fire token you can get what you need, which is an advantage.”

Currency is something none of these top-notch players have dealt with on “Survivor,” so it should get interesting.

“If ‘Survivor’ was a novel, then I would want every chapter to be a new adventure,” Probst said. “This season is going to be a war. We’re going to give [the contestants] the tools and the weapons to kill each other, and one of them will survive. And that person will be titled ‘The Greatest Player of All Time.’ Those are the stakes.”

As “Hunger Games”-esque as that might sound, Probst explained that “Survivor” has only outlasted its TV competition because it has adapted with each installment. In the Season 40 premiere alone, audiences saw a divide erupt between the OGs and the new kids, so it will surely be an experiment in how idols, challenge advantages, alliances and money can enhance or hinder each victorious castaway’s proven technique.

Jeff Probst watches Michaela Bradshaw, Troyzan Robertson, Cirie Fields and Hali Ford compete on the sixth episode of "Survivor: Game Changers."
Jeff Probst watches Michaela Bradshaw, Troyzan Robertson, Cirie Fields and Hali Ford compete on the sixth episode of "Survivor: Game Changers."
CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

Probst says the showrunners take it one season at a time when it comes to looking toward the future. But for Seasons 41 and 42, they’re all about casting individuals who will lessen the blow of distressing news headlines.

“The world’s upside down. There’s so much tension and we’re going to be in an election,” he said. “I want underdogs. I want likable people. I want people to tune into ‘Survivor’ and think, ‘They’ve overcome a lot. I hope one of them wins a million dollars.’ That’s the flavor.”

As someone who was 13 when the calculated yet extremely likable Boston Rob first appeared on “Survivor: Marquesas,” it’s not lost on me how special it is that, in an era where many institutions are eroding, my one TV mainstay holds strong. “Survivor” night is family night. I watched the show with my parents, and I now scream strategy at my TV as my husband sits beside me. I know my young daughter will watch it someday, too.

Maybe I’ll take up Probst’s offer to submit another audition tape. But for now, my torch burns bright as I watch from my couch.

“Survivor: Winners at War” airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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