Shocking and ridiculous things Jeff Probst said about Survivor and Twitter

Yesterday, a panel of CBS Television Studios-affiliated people talked to some TV critics about how they’re using Twitter. That included Survivor host Jeff Probst, who participated along with writers from The Good Wife, and NCIS’ Pauley Perrette and LL Cool J. It was moderated by Twitter’s Chloe Sladden.

During the session, Jeff said some interesting things, like that “CBS did not like me Tweeting in the beginning” but now is “totally supportive.” Jeff said that we can expect more from him online during Survivor South Pacific: “I’m definitely looking this season to do something new. I want to take it to the next level, and I’m working on that now.”

Besides admitting that he has a Google alert with his own name (“I have one, and the temptation, every day it comes up, is to say: Maybe there is something good on there. And then no, once again, I’m a loser. I’m a dick.”), he admitted frustration with feedback on Twitter (“God knows, if you repeat one fucking beat, ‘You already said that.'”) and described how he covers for his slip-ups: “I could tell you the answer, and then challenge you to wonder if I’m telling you the truth or not. And that’s always my out. On the rare times, like in an interview on location, when I say something, and I see the publicist behind me, and suddenly my skin goes white, and I start going, ‘That’s what I’m saying. If you believe me!'”

But Jeff also said some ridiculous things about how Twitter has a “direct impact” on Survivor, including this season’s casting twist, which I wrote about yesterday.

Let’s start with what Jeff considers to be “conversation”:

“The great thing I think about the Twitter audience is if somebody is following along during a live tweet of Survivor, and they say something like, ‘Dude, I hate that you’re doing this on the East Coast. I’m on the West Coast,’ I can say, ‘Then unfollow me,’ you know, and that’s it. You can have a real conversation. You don’t have to say, ‘Ah, that’s so unfortunate that we’re on different — dude, you know, get lost.’ And they write back, ‘No, no, no, I still want to follow.’ Right? … You have got a real conversation.”

That is not a real conversation, unless we are using the Nigel Lythgoe definition. A conversation is engaging someone who is upset with you, not dismissing them or bullying them into following you. He repeated that “real conversation” twice, so he clearly wasn’t joking. Jeff later said,

“I respect the people who are following me, and I’m going to treat you with respect.”

I’m not sure how telling someone to get lost counts as respect. It’s one thing to block someone who’s being abusive, and another to have an emotional response to someone who’s being a jerk online; I’ve certainly done both. But let’s not kid ourselves that dismissing someone counts as healthy conversation or dialogue.

Later, Jeff discussed mocking and baiting someone who constantly commented on his EW recaps, by responding with,

“‘I’m sorry that you’re housebound with your crayons, and I’m sure the special bus is just around the corner.’ … He writes back, and the first thing he says is, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe you wrote me back. Thank you for writing me back. I’m such a big fan. You are right, I am housebound. All I do is watch TV.’ Yeah.”

So, yes, the kind of conversation that inspired Jeff to get on Twitter was mocking and baiting housebound malcontents by suggesting they are physically or mentally challenged.

Jeff later talked about feedback:

“You cannot please everybody. And if you get sucked into the trap of, ‘Oh, at eight minutes in they didn’t like that color of that microscope I had,’ you’re doomed. You still have to follow your point of view and believe that the story you are telling is the right one and go with it.

Because otherwise you end up with the equivalent of 30 suits in a room giving notes on a one-minute video cut of something, and it ends up being nothing. It has been neutralized into having no point of view.

That’s why I look at it and think: Some stuff rings true; other I don’t agree with. And if you don’t like it, don’t follow, and if I respond, I’ll respond.”

Essentially, Jeff is saying that he only looks for confirmation of what he believes, so why look at people’s living rooms or listen to their feedback on which players to bring back? Confirmation bias is fascinating (read more about it) and we all engage in it, but it’s kind of absurd to give Twitter all kinds of credit and then admit you just pick and choose the feedback you want.

That useful to remember when you read Jeff explaining how living rooms are now used to make decisions about Survivor:

“I will always Tweet a photo of where I am. If I’m at CBS for an East Coast feed, because I don’t have the East Coast, and we do it in an office, or if I’m at my home with my friends, and we’re drinking margaritas, I will take a shot, and I’ll say, ‘Show me your living room,’ and what comes back is better than any focus group you would ever get in Las Vegas where you give out a handbag for somebody telling you if they like the new ‘Good Wife’ show.

What you get is a photo of a family, and you can tell if they are white, black, Hispanic, if they are in shape, overweight, if they are eating Doritos, if they have dogs, stuffed animals. We see the photos on their wall. You are in their living room.

And I took back to this year — you know, we’re always talking about the audience on our show, but this year I was able to go back to the guys and say: These are the photos, right here, that’s who watches our show.

That’s why when we say something like it has got to be simpler, it’s because Diet Coke and Doritos are on most peoples’ coffee tables when they are watching all of our shows. It is not a sophisticated thing. They are just people with their feet up, going, ‘Entertain me.'”

This blows my mind. First, I can’t believe that such a random, unrepresentative sample, as I discussed yesterday, and as Jeff later admitted to in a different context (“seven or eight people that said, ‘I used to DVR, now I watch live,’ and that’s the line that gets you back”) is being treated seriously. But apparently it is being shown to “the guys”–producers? executives?–and used to make decisions.

Yes, we’re getting an increasingly dumbed-down Survivor (“it has got to be simpler”) because some people eat snack food while watching the show and Jeff Probst has stereotyped them as unsophisticated people who don’t think but just want to be entertained.

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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.