Top Shot host Colby Donaldson: “I certainly don’t want to rip Probst off”

On Sunday night, the History Channel debuts its first competitive reality series, and it’s hosted by three-time Survivor cast member Colby Donaldson, whose work as a host is admittedly influenced by Jeff Probst, and it has also given Colby “newfound appreciation and admiration” for the Emmy-winning host’s work.

Top Shot is a competition between 16 people with varying degrees of shooting experience, and they compete in two teams in challenges that test their abilities with various weapons (here’s a preview). Unlike some of History’s other reality series, this one actually has a connection to the past. As Colby explains to the contestants in the first episode, “over the next 30 days, you will travel through history, competing in challenges using the legendary weapons of the past and the present.” While the first two episodes feature rifles and handguns, Colby said future episodes will force the competitors to use everything from crossbows to throwing knives.

I’m about as interested in guns as I am interested in having a hole in my head, so watching the first episode, as the contestants shot at targets during the practice round, I thought it was going to be dreadfully boring. By the end, however, thanks in no small part to the Survivor-style elements, I was really into it, rooting for one of the contestants over the other in the elimination challenge and getting excited as targets exploded.

When I talked to him yesterday, Colby told me that the series “shares a lot of the same [production] team with Survivor,” including executive producer Craig Piligian, who worked on Survivor for its first few seasons. Top Shot also borrows Survivor‘s three-day-per-episode format (though this show has just 10 episodes instead of 13; it filmed over 30 days in Santa Clarita earlier this spring) and has two tribes–er, teams. Colby said that the show “quickly becomes very strategic,” which is the part that I liked best. He said that in later episodes, there’s “conspiring to get rid of some of the top shooters” so that competition will be out of the way.

My favorite part is the way the losing team votes: They take a handgun and shoot a target with the person’s name on it. However, on Top Shot, the voting doesn’t eliminate a contestant; they compete in a challenge, so it’s by their own success or failure that they stay or leave. That was dramatic, as are some of the competitions, although the first one is a bit too gratuitously and unsuccessfully Survivor-like. While shooting at targets alone is visually uninteresting, these targets explode in fire and smoke, and we see the bullet fly through it thanks to a slow-motion camera. Colby said there is the “cool factor in terms of visuals” and noted that the high-speed HD cameras can shoot 40,000 frames per second, so “that stuff just looks good.”

The cast includes 16 people but just one woman, and that’s because, Colby said, there was just “one female who actually qualified,” though “she is certainly not the token female.” He said that it’s “part of the application process” to “make them earn their way onto the show,” and “we were hoping to get more like her” but “we were bummed about it, too.” He said producers hope a second season, if the show’s renewed, will get more qualified female applicants. Of course, although the contestants are good at shooting, he said, “we need big personalities, we need dynamic personalities.”

Colby got the job because he “auditioned for it just like any other hosting gig,” though he felt like he “was a perfect fit” because he’s been around guns since he was little and now considers himself “a passionate enthusiast and a bit of a collector.” He told me he was hired two days before production began, and said that since the job came about while his previously filmed episodes of Survivor were on CBS, he said he’s “lucky” “to only be off the air a few weeks” in-between shows.

As a host, Colby reminded me a lot of season one Jeff Probst: Colby is both finding his own style and, in some cases, nearly mimicking Probst, lifting up his arms to start a challenge or saying “come on over, guys,” instead of “come on in, guys.”

Colby acknowledges the similarities. “I certainly don’t want to rip Probst off, but so much is it just stuff I’ve sponged off of him–not only having played the game three times, but just being a fan of the show and watching it for 10 years straight. … Because of some of the competition stuff we’re doing on Top Shot mirrors a lot of the structure of Survivor, it’s tough to come up with different ways to introduce the same segments, the same stuff,” he said. “There’s only so many ways you can do that. There are going to be times when it looks like Survivor. I don’t want to be knocking off Probst or be a cheap imitation version of him.”

Colby said that Probst was “very supportive and encouraging” when they ran into each other (prior to the finale), and added, “I’ve always respected Probst and I’ve always known how good he is at what he does, but now, having been through a season myself as host, I can definitely say I have a newfound appreciation and admiration for how good he really is.”

It’s clear that Probst’s involvement and role as a producer is also a model for Colby, who is much more than a robo-host. “I kept finding myself in these situations and in these conversations with the producers where I found myself dealing with what-if scenarios and crossing bridges for the first time,” including “potential merge situations,” Colby said. “Those decisions we all made together as a team,” so “[I'm] beyond just being the mouthpiece” as the host.

In the two episodes I’ve seen, there was a lot of voice-over work: Colby recorded some of his lines later. There’s an increasing amount of this on reality TV, which is unfortunate, but Colby said there are to clear reasons why it happens on Top Shot, and neither have to do with his hosting ability. “It happened a lot more on the first episode,” he said, and “it really trails off. … Because it’s History Channel and we’re dealing with history, we have to be incredibly specific about the weapons. When I’m introducing the weapons, which was all done out in the field, they’ve since gone in and changed some of the details, some of the specificity, the history of these weapons, some of the vernacular. There was no way we could have gotten it out in the field because they changed the script.”

The other reason, he said, was “there are so many different competitors, I didn’t know all their names. I literally had been hired two days beforehand; I wasn’t involved in the casting process; I didn’t know who any of these players were.” So, he had to re-record “who’s doing what during the challenge.” He said his hosting “will get more organic as the series go on” and “the only VO I’ve been adding to episodes 3 and 4 and moving on has to deal with the specificity in terms of weapons. Even after we’re done filming, the research continues to be done on these weapons, and History sometimes changes their mind about what they want to say about these weapons.”

As a former contestant, “it’s not sympathy for these contestants, it’s empathy” that Colby said he has. “I know what that feels like,” and because of that, he went to their house off-camera to “just give them some encouragement. … What I tried to share with these guys is what a unique position they’re in. Of all the pride I have surrounding Survivor, I can never claim I was on the first season. … And these guys have that claim.”

“Throughout this season of filming Top Shot, I continued to think about it must have been like for those guys in Borneo filming the first season of Survivor, because it is uncharted water for us,” he said. I was very glad I came on board before the first season so we started this journey together.” He added that they’re “hoping we take this thing as long as Survivor has gone on.”

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.