Earlier this year, Jeff Probst did an extensive sit-down interview with a former cast member, and that conversation was posted online. I didn’t watch it until this week, but it has insight into Probst’s thinking about his approach to twists and themes, and a hint of what he wants to do with Survivor 41.
First, there’s some encouraging news from Fiji that affects Survivor’s ability to film its next season.
The Fijian government has set rules for foreign productions, including 14 days of isolation for people arriving in the island nation, and testing before they even get on a plane to go to Fiji. Martin Holmes at Inside Survivor has the details.
There’s absolutely no confirmation yet that Survivor has a date when it plans to film season 41 (or 42). This plan would, of course, add at least two weeks to the schedule, potentially impacting cast members, if they haven’t already been affected by the delay in production.
Also, as Inside Survivor reported separately, Fiji’s “tax rebates are currently frozen,” and that 45 percent rebate is critical to Survivor, because it cuts the show’s costs—which are already less expensive because it’s significantly cheaper to film in Fiji than it would be to film in the United States—in half.
What’s in store for Survivor season 41? Showrunner and host Jeff Probst talked about that earlier this year—and also talked about creating new twists and themes.
Probst needs to ‘reinvent the show’ every season
In a Talks at Google session, Probst was interviewed by Dean Kowalski, a runner-up from season 39, as part of the Talks at Google series. Dean works at Google and says he was surprised when he showed up to play Survivor that it was real, because he thought there’d be granola bars available for the contestants.
Dean also says, “We have another Googler on this season, who won previously—the Asian guy. Yul, Yul Kwon.” (Maybe just start with “Yul Kwon” the next time, and if you can’t remember his name, maybe don’t talk.)
In the interview, Probst is complimentary toward the players (“Oh my god. I’ve been eating and sleeping—I don’t know how you do it”) and insists Survivor: Winners at War “is the best season we’ve ever done.”
He also says that, for a Mount Rushmore of Survivor, he’d choose “Boston” Rob Mariano, Sandra Diaz-Twine—and also Parvati Shallow and Ben Driebergen.
Ben. Almost 600 contestants over 20 years and Ben?! (Probst did seem to be put on the spot by the question, and also couldn’t recall Caleb’s name when talking about Caleb’s near-death medical emergency, and since I am someone who draws an immediate blank when people ask me what TV shows I’m currently watching, I can understand that he might not have had an answer, and perhaps it was just the only name he could think of. Still: Ben!)
One thing I appreciate about Jeff Probst as showrunner is his candidness in these kinds of interviews. Often it lays bare things that really frustrate me about the show or his choices, but I appreciate hearing his thoughts, because that’s a lot more insight than we get from most producers, who often just aren’t allowed to talk by networks.
At one point in the interview, Probst expresses both pride in the creative choices his team has made, but also some frustration about some fans’ reactions—like to Edge of Extinction.
His reaction in the video is quite comical, as he slumps over in his chair, illustrating his exhaustion, as he gets to the last lines here:
“This is me patting ourselves on the back a little bit, is we work really hard to try to reinvent the show every single time—and it takes months and months to try to figure out that one little new nugget of something. And that’s why, when people cherry-pick and they’re like, Eh, didn’t really like Edge of Extinction. Well, dude, I get it. Do you have an idea? Because I’d love it.”
I’ll skip the “cherry-pick” part, because Edge of Extinction was a fundamental alteration to the core principles of the game, and ask the most important question:
Why do we need “to reinvent the show every single time”? I really want someone with access to Jeff Probst to ask him that question.
Is that a CBS mandate, that each season has to be brand-new in some way? Do CBS executives say no or push back if it doesn’t feel new enough?
Is this backed up by audience polling that says viewers just won’t watch Survivor next season if the show hasn’t been reinvented? In seasons where the production has done less reinvention, have ratings declined?
Is it a holdover from the early days, where each season was shaped by its location, and now without that geographical shift, producers think they need to rework the game itself to compensate?
I just want to know why, because it’s that obsessive need that seems unnecessary but is also chipping away at what I love about the show.
Last fall, in an extended metaphor, I compared Survivor to pizza: a perfect form that can handle some modifications. But if you have to have brand-new toppings every time you make a pizza, pretty soon you’ll end up ruining it by putting things on it that just don’t belong, because you’re committed to change more than to just delivering an excellent pizza.
So, it’s distressing to hear that Probst thinks he has to keep reinventing Survivor. How great would it be if he could stop stressing out about creating something brand-new each season and we could just get some classic Survivor again?
In January, well before this interview went live, Josh Wigler tweeted that “Probst’s ‘WE GOTTA EVOLVE MAN’ galaxy brain approach to Survivor is a problem and the fact that he doesn’t listen to anyone saying otherwise (and is maybe not surrounded by enough people who say otherwise) is also a problem.”
In the Google interview, Probst shares where his ideas come from, and who he listens to: Jimmy Fallon, for one. Fallon regularly “writes the 3 a.m. e-mails” with ideas, Probst said.
Some of those have become reality, like the Survivor: Second Chance vote and live reveal, and also Rob and Sandra watching Tribal Council from a secret box during Survivor: Island of the Idols. (If only Jimmy Fallon had suggested to Jeff Probst not allowing sexual harassment and unwanted touching to occur on the set, it would have been a very different season.)
Jeff also gets idea from the game designer behind of Exploding Kittens, Elan Lee, who Probst said is “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and he’s a friend of mine, so I’ll always call him and say, okay here’s what we’re doing, and he’s this fast” with ideas. For example, Lee came up with the idea of hiding an advantage as part of the shelter on Survivor: Island of the Idols (“What if the shelter is a massive escape room”?)
Probst does allow that there are some twists that he wasn’t a fan of: “There’s two that we did that I didn’t like. I’m realizing how this is going to sound—neither of them were really ideas I wanted to do. … They were both Mark’s. He’s in the hall of fame; he can have some bad ideas.” Those were:
- The Outcast twist in Survivor: Pearl Islands, which Probst says he objected to because “they went to a hotel and ate and had a shower” and “that’s fundamentally wrong.” (That explains how that is different from the Edge of Extinction twist, for example.)
- The Medallion of Power from Survivor: Nicaragua. “Oh my god, we toyed with this idea,” Probst said, calling it a “really corny and super-dumb, but Mark loved the name.”
Jeff said that “ideas for me just come from my own personal— It’s why it’s so singular, in that I liked Edge of Extinction. Not simply because it lets you keep popular in the game longer, which is just a producing idea, but I like the idea of how far will you go to push yourself to see what you’re capable of as a human.”
“But then I talk to a lot of Survivor fans and they’re like, I don’t know, man. I just say when you’re out you’re out. Enough of your spiritual stuff,” he added.
Yes, surprise: fans of a game want the game to generally hold to its core rules.
Plans for Survivor 41: fire tokens and a ‘reset’
In the interview at Google, asked by an audience member if contestants are allowed to have daily medication, Jeff Probst says it’s on a case-by-case basis, and asked specifically about medical marijuana, says “yeah, no—it’s not a bad reward idea, though.”
I’m sure he’s joking, or at least that would not be approved by CBS, though that would be amazing. But Probst did give information about what he is planning.
Probst talked about the reinvention of the show for season 40: “the creative behind [Survivor: Winners at War] was, 20 winners. We’ll introduce this new layer of money, because at some point every society gets money.”
For next season, he said this: “In 41, we’re going to birth something new: bring money into a bigger way and just maybe try to reset and start over.”
That is both thrilling and, of course, short on details. What will a “reset and start over” look like? I’d hope that means pulling back on the deluge of idols and advantages, but I can’t quite see that happening while also increasing fire tokens.
How will fire tokens work if the Edge of Extinction is not in play, because apparently it will not be? The voted-out players created the supply, after all. Maybe fire tokens will be scattered around camp, like Easter eggs. I’d guess that players who are voted out will continue to will their tokens to someone else.
I am encouraged by the idea of a “reset and start over,” unless that means completely reworking the fundamentals of Survivor, because I’m convinced that’s what’s allowed this game to survive for 20 years and 40 seasons: it’s a perfect format.
One audience member asked Probst what he’s learned about people from hosting and producing Survivor for 20 years, and he said this:
“We are capable of so much more. We just don’t apply ourselves. We don’t either put ourselves into situations or we’re afraid to seek them out.”
“The reason I continue to thrive for me, emotionally, is I’m just watching us live. We’re all seeking something. And the biggest thing is personally, I know I thought I was the center of the universe in season one. I think I viewed the world only through my filters—how lucky I am that I get to do this show, how lucky I am.
And through watching people play, and realizing we’re all trying to figure it out, each season I feel like I mature a little more. I’m a work in progress for sure, but a little more understanding, man, I’m a center of the universe but I’m a grain of sand on the earth, and I’ve just got to find my place. I know it’s made me more patient. I can listen to answers longer, I don’t feel like I have to jump in and have an opinion on things.”
As to the things I always feel the need to jump in and have an opinion on—twists—Probst said these two things:
“We just try things, and as long as I’m blessed with being the showrunner, we’re going to try things that are interesting, or that I can see some path to get there, even if it’s not my idea. If I can’t see a path, for me, we’re not doing it, because I have to be able to understand what it is.”
“Whether it works and it’s a great season or whether you think it was terrible: it doesn’t matter. It was still fulfilling an idea, and it was a new season, and it kept us alive to try something new, and maybe we’ll do it again.”
Probst also revealed that two of the worst recent twists, “Island of the Idols and Edge of the Extinction both came from desperate nights of what are we going to do.”
On behalf of a Survivor fan for 20 years: please just stop trying so hard, and you’ll keep this show alive for another 20 years.