What we learned from Jeff Probst’s AMA

Earlier this year, Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan did a Reddit AMA just before the debut of his show’s season, and now, just before the finale of Survivor Cagayan, its host Jeff Probst did an AMA.

As with Phil’s, there were a lot of questions left unanswered, which is to be expected, but Probst also answered many of them in depth, including ones that were confrontational or challenged his decisions. Probst may be far too willing to listen to people, though he points out that “Sometimes that missing ingredient is the audience doesn’t have all the information and if they did they might make the same decision we do.”

A Reddit user gathered links to all his answers in a helpful chart. Below, I’ve excerpted answers and parts of answers that I found to be the most interesting and insightful, especially those with new information:

Who makes the final decisions on casting:

“Yes there are times when we disagree but we talk through it and almost always find common ground. But if push comes to shove Mark and Les Moonves decide. Les Moonves still approves every casting decision on our show. Wonder why CBS is #1? That might be the place to start – he pays attention to detail.”

When and why he stopped being neutral in challenge commentary:

“It started in Thailand. A ‘fight’ of sorts started during a challenge and I got into a bit of a shouting match with clay and someone else — and we left it in the edit and CBS loved it. Up until that time they wanted me to remain neutral and have no opinion. I loved when they opened up the flood gates. It allowed me to be more honest in my responses and like them or not (like me or not) it’s the only way to host a show. You have to be authentic. You’re either right for the job or you’re not but pretending to be a news anchor or pretending to be a tv show host just won’t work.”

Whether or not contestants tell him “to fuck off” during his play-by-play:

“I don’t really do it with the intention of being annoying — even though I know it’s frustrating for them — I think it’s just become an added layer to the game and part of my ‘play by play’ which I also know drives people nuts! If someone told me to fuck off, then I’d know that I was fully in their head. I do sometimes rehearse a challenge and John Kirhoffer (our challenge supervising producer) will play ‘me’ and he does the same thing and man is it hard to solve a puzzle with someone telling you you suck!”

Why contestants shouldn’t be allowed to use social media

“Personally I don’t like it. If it was my decision I would not let them use social media. I agree with you it is too risky. This is a CBS decision and I don’t have any say in it. Generally speaking I don’t think it gives us one more viewer and so the upside is not worth the potential downside.”

[…] “I’ll answer this again in the hopes that the VP of publicity is reading this — I do not think we should do it. It works on other shows but not a competition show that is still on going. Big risk. I fear it will bite us in the butt one day.”

How he’s already anticipating our reaction to the change in format to the finale

“I’m gonna start the show live and pop in a few times during the finale (I can already hear some of you bitching) but the idea is to make it a big more of an event and share a couple of tidbits and insight with you to make it even more fun!”

How the Tyler Perry idol was hidden and why he thinks it worked

“…I will say that honestly we didn’t think anybody would find it. We BURIED IT and there was no clue We just wanted people thinking it was out there. But Tony flipped it upside down when he lied about how late in the game it could be used. He has forced them to make him play it in order to find out it’s power. Brilliant!”

[…]
“Tyler Perry Idol having too much power — I listen. I do agree in this case and like I said — we truly did not think it would be found. And we felt since there was only one of them and it could not be traded that the worst case would be somebody saved themselves one time at tribal. Nobody anticipated Tony finding it along with the other two — and we never even considered he would lie about it’s power. I do believe though that if spencer had found it — people wouldn’t be nearly as upset.”

Why the non-jury Caramoan cast was kept off-stage:

“Caramoan Reunion — couple reasons we had the non-jury off the stage. The biggest reason was we were trying something new. I hated how much it hurt the feelings of the non jury. I am not a cold or uncaring person. I knew they felt slighted. We made a mistake in not telling them ahead of time and I take responsibility for that. The reason the idea came up in the first place is we knew Brandon would not be at the show and we didn’t want it to be a big deal. Turns out it became a bigger deal as a result of our decision.”

Why locations don’t matter and are hard to find:

“Locations in general as noted earlier are very very tough to find for lots of reasons. I don’t worry about the location as much as I do the cast and theme. If we get those two right we are usually okay.

I don’t even think half our crew would know which jungle we were in if we blindfolded them and dropped them. Sometimes a beach is a beach. But never is a contestant just another contestant.”

What he misses about earlier Survivor seasons:

“There was an ‘amateurish’ feeling to our early seasons, especially season one — where it really was cinema verite — we had cameras in the shots, we didn’t always have great audio — but it was really compelling because it was so raw. Our show is now much more polished, which is ultimately a much better way to tell the story. But there is something very innocent about season one that will never be there again.”

What he thinks about giving players bonus votes:

“This is a very clever idea. We have played around with the idea of extra votes — and may do it one day. I like your ‘visual’ idea of how to play it. When we have a new idea we run scenarios for a long time to try and find the places where it will backfire. Extra votes are a fun idea but we have to be certain we’ve thought of every situation and how it might play out. I like hearing that a fan is okay with an extra vote too — because it is clearly very powerful. If we end up using your idea on the show I’ll deny this was me and be sure to take full credit for coming up with it myself!”

On reports about seasons 29 and 30’s twists and casts:

“Once again – a “rumor” — I love the title “Survivor legends” – but can’t confirm or deny anything. I will say this though — we look at season 30 as another season. Not the end of anything. That’s been very interesting to me to listen to people say “You gotta do something REALLY BIG for 30!” I’m not sure I agree. What we have to do is a great season. That’s the most important thing. And I’m loving having new players — between this season and last I can think of 9 people just off the top of my hungry head that could be asked back — tony, spencer, kass, tasha, sarah, hayden, vytas, culpepper, ciera — that’s kind of amazing.”

Why the location’s local culture has been dropped:

“You know this comes down to a few things — it’s harder for us to find ‘new cultures’ that we haven’t explored (after 28 seasons) and it’s also a question of time available in an episode. We have to decide what stories are going to be most interesting. As much as I love culture — I really do — the fans do seem to enjoy strategy and game play more than culture.”

On mistakes the show has made and taking risks:

“Medallion of Power. I never liked it. Didn’t speak up loudly enough. We do make mistakes — we know that. But I hope you guys feel that generally we make good decisions. Here’s the truth and any show creator will tell you this — you don’t know what will work until you try it. If it’s right you’re a genius, if it’s wrong, you’re an idiot. I like the risk — I’m okay being an idiot so long as I believe in the idea. Medallion of Power I didn’t believe in so that was a hard one. But RI -or ‘Idol with special powers’ etc — I believe in their foundation and what we hope to accomplish. You MUST take risks in life. Otherwise you’re just wasting your time on the planet.”

Whether he’s considered leaving the show:

“There were a couple of times where I felt a bit burnt out on the show and did consider leaving but wisely CBS and Mark Burnett said ‘take a couple weeks and think it over’ and I did and realized ‘This is probably the greatest job I’ll ever have!’ And fortunately didn’t make the mistake of leaving. I am as connected and as committed to the show as I ever have been. No intention of leaving. Love the team we have and the relationship with the audience — which is KEY for me. We make the show for our fans.”

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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.