On Jeff Probst, Survivor fans, Redemption Island, social media, and how wrong I was

In the press release announcing the renewal, Probst said, “Survivor has been blessed with incredibly loyal fans. We make this show for them and I am thrilled that we get to do it again.” He also said producers try to give fans “what they want.”

This is a terrible idea, and I say that as a fan who has very strong ideas about what I want.

When I first broke news of the Survivor Blood vs. Water casting twist, I was intrigued by the concept, but when CBS unveiled seven more twists that, on paper, seemed desperate, I was skeptical, particularly of everything having to do with Redemption Island, which hasn’t exactly been my favorite twist in the past.

I was wrong. It may have been desperate, but it worked–very well.

Redemption Island has its imperfections, depriving each episode of a reward challenge and recycling challenges, and changing the game to allow people voted out to return. In the past, it’s been little more than an annoyance, especially when the person who re-enters the game is just voted out at the next Tribal Council.

What it did this season, though, was provide a mechanism for consistent entertainment and drama, such as Tina and Katie’s battle for immunity, Colton’s quitting (and the subsequent rise of Caleb), and Fuck You Brad Culpepper. It also improved the game by sending Laura back where Ciera had to suddenly contend with an emotionally charged challenge to her game.

Had Jeff Probst called me and said, “Should we do Redemption Island?” or “Should we bring back that quitter twit Colton?” I would have said, “Hell no, bro,” and had he listened to me, this season would been considerably less terrific than it was.

Fans get frustrated for many reasons; this season, I was particularly annoyed with Probst’s exposition and hammering of obvious story points. But because I am attracted to Survivor on many different levels, and because so much of it remains strong–everything from the cinematography to the actual physical construction of the challenges–I’m sticking around even when parts of it fail.

As the series’ executive producer and showrunner, Probst has considerably more responsibility than he did when he just hosted, though he has long been a key part of the creative team. I think it’s great that he remains so engaged and accessible to viewers, though that can have weird consequences (Probst listened to who knows who and brought back Ozzy) and also doesn’t necessarily lead to clear understanding (Probst seems to think jealousy fuels the Culpepper dislike).

Probst asks for viewers’ input in a decision-making process that is usually left to sometimes clueless and disconnected network executives, and that’s to be commended. Listening to and considering constructive criticism is important, especially for people who create a product for a mass audience.

But it is literally impossible to incorporate all feedback, and being so amenable to feedback gets Probst into a rhetorical cul-de-sac. Talking about Redemption Island, he said, “I hear people all the time saying that it takes away the purity of the show. But it’s a matter of opinion, and I don’t think I’m right by any means.”

We’ve seen scripted shows fall down a black hole of awfulness because their creators tried to make fans happy, and we’ve seen plenty of shows that took leaps into new territory that surprised and delighted even the biggest skeptics. I’d include Survivor and my own reactions in that category.

How should showrunners like Probst respond? Here’s great advice from Shonda Rhimes, creator and showrunner of Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, among other series, discussing her shows’ fans:

“I care [about what fans think], but any time I’ve ever sort of stopped and paid attention to what was being said or trying to shift anything based on what was being said, the show just started to suck really bad. It’s sort of saying I hand my show over to the fans and it belongs to them. You can’t do that if you’re going to continue to be creative and create.”

Yes. That’s especially true because the ability to bark at those in power via social media makes fans feel even more entitled than they previously were. Those who threaten to never watch again usually don’t make good on their promise, they’re just trying to leverage what little power they have.

Reality TV show creators should receive feedback, listen to criticism, and consider perspectives different from their own, but because it’s impossible to please everyone, they also need to just make a decision about what they think is best. That means realizing and accepting that sometimes those decisions will be spectacular failures. Make a choice, stick to it; if it doesn’t work, don’t do it again.

That said, the most die-hard, intelligent Survivor fans will disagree about how well things work or don’t work. That’s okay; in fact, a significant part of what has helped the series remain so strong over 13 years is it provides so much fuel for discussion, from strategy to production decisions.

All I want is for Jeff Probst and company to produce the best possible show they can, and for CBS to support that with resources that support and reward them for their work–especially the truly amazing crew, whose exceptional technical work is often invisible but makes it possible for the series to be as exceptionally well-crafted as it has been for so long.

The best way to lose fans is to try so hard to please them you stop making the show that won them over in the first place.

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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.