Reality AF: Survivor’s Jeff Probst on that Infamous “Monster,” the Importance of Diversity, and the Chances of a Celebrity Survivor
Editor’s Note: Welcome to Reality AF, where each week Terry Terrones checks in on the state of reality TV, or, in this case, catches up with one of the biggest names in the game.
The monster is back. I’m referring to Survivor of course, not the metaphorical monster (more on that later) touted during the last two seasons of the hit reality series. The long-running franchise is a monster in and of itself, earning its place on the Reality TV Mount Rushmore a long time ago.
After 22 years, 620 episodes, 646 contestants, and 639 torch snuffs, Survivor is back for its 43rd season. To get prepped, I had a lengthy chat with host Jeff Probst, who’s been an integral part of the series since it premiered in 2000. We discussed the show’s longevity, how he thinks he’d do as a contestant, and naturally we talked about The Monster. Here’s a transcript of our exchange.
Get us hyped. Why should Survivor fans be excited about Season 43?
Really? That’s your first question?! That’s like asking why an NFL fan should be excited about a new season of football! Because it’s Survivor and we’re back! I’m very excited about this season because we get to pick up where we left off with Survivor 42. One of the things we love about our new format is it’s so completely unpredictable that it forces players, the wise ones anyway, to stay aware at all times. You can anticipate and even make assumptions, but when the reality of what’s happening is finally clear, the great players adapt instantly. That is a large part of what makes Survivor so fun to watch. Trying to guess who will be able to maneuver most successfully to the ever changing game design.
Treat this season’s cast like a fantasy football team. Who would be your top pick, your sleeper, and who do you think is a long shot?
I love this question, but I’ve stopped evaluating the players because the truth is, I’m a fan of every single player, otherwise they wouldn’t be on. And over 42 seasons, I have only picked one winner, Wendell Holland, so I would clearly suck at Fantasy Survivor.
Talk about the entire cast a bit. What makes this group special?
Like every group of players, this group has their own unique personality. There are some very savvy players, some of whom approach the game more seriously, and others who approach it with the greatest sense of humor. It’s fascinating to watch the different approaches, what works, what doesn’t. We also have some really great stories of players who have overcome tremendous odds in their lives. I’m excited to introduce them to our fans.
What kind of character traits make for a good player?
You have to be ready, willing, and able to play loose. You can’t play tight. You can’t play to not lose. You have to make moves knowing they may fail, and if they do, you may go home. The Survivor Hall of Fame is full of great players who have never won, but they all played fearlessly.
If someone is selected to be on the show, how would you recommend they prepare for something like Survivor? Or can you actually do that?
I do think you can prepare, but it won’t be the same prep for everyone. If you’re an outdoors type of person by nature, you might experiment with spear fishing or learning the basics of how to build a shelter out of palm fronds. If you’re great at puzzles, you might spend time trying to really hone your skills on the types of puzzles we typically do on the show. But the bottom line is it will come down to your ability to read people and situations, and react accordingly. There is no science to this game, you have to find your own strengths and lean into them.
Let’s talk about the Survivor monster. Can we get confirmation of what or who it is? Is it the challenge of the show itself? Is it a player’s own paranoia? Is it you? Is it players dealing with so many advantages and variables? And will we see the monster again this season?
I’ll take full credit and blame for the monster analogy. What I was attempting to do was create a metaphor that would help players understand, on a fundamental level, that you cannot be afraid of the game. So often, players will complain that a new twist or advantage is somehow unfair. There is no such thing as fair or unfair, it is what it is. So it’s an absolute waste of a player’s time and energy. The monster analogy is suggesting that you think of the game like the monster in a horror movie. If you suddenly discover that the monster that is chasing you around your kitchen has a new and surprising way to kill you, you’re not going to stop and complain about whether it’s fair or not, you’re going to try and kill the monster before the monster kills you. That’s Survivor. You must devour the game or it will most certainly devour you.
There’s always tweaks to the Survivor formula. What kind of mods can fans expect this season?
We’re really leaning into uncertainty and using it to keep the players off balance. They don’t know what to expect in Survivor 43 and that’s all we need to keep them guessing. Now they have to make assumptions, and those assumptions are what create the turning points. You’ll see the effect play out in different ways.
Due to COVID the normal length of a Survivor season was shortened to 26 days. Is that still the length of a season? If so, will this be the new norm?
Yes, this new format is here to stay. We are really excited to let players continue to explore how best to play this faster and more dangerous version of a game they have studied for over 20 years.
After 43 seasons, Survivor’s legacy is secure, and its audience is incredibly perse. What is it about the series that still resonates after 22 years?
It’s a big question with a lot of layers to the answer. From a big picture point of view, I think Survivor has always appealed to something in our core as humans. The idea of challenging ourselves, to live off the land, to make our own fire, catch our own fish, it’s in our DNA. Then you put this fantastic social game on top of it and dangle a $1 million prize. It’s a pretty powerful combination. And as I’ve said many times, the decision by George Cheeks (CBS President & CEO) to demand more persity will go down as one of the most positive things to ever happen to our show. You’ll see the impact again this season with so many fascinating players from different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. And it feeds on itself. When you see someone who looks like you, or is from a background like yours, playing Survivor, it’s inspiring! You realize, if they can do it, I can do it.
The series shows no signs of slowing down. Rating wise it’s still…a monster. How long can Survivor’s run last and what does the series need to do to remain beloved?
I don’t know if there is an answer to that question. I can only say that we have always approached the show with one really simple but consistent philosophy: authenticity. I still have people asking me if Survivor is real. Yes, Survivor is 100% real. I think long-time Survivor fans understand that the game is pure. We trust our gut regarding who to put on the show and the game design we create to test the players, but then we turn the entire game over to them. They form a new society, and the rules of that society dictate who stays, who goes and ultimately, who wins. We just try to stay out of the way. I think as long as we keep doing that and our storytelling remains at a very high level, the format is very strong.
Time to make you uncomfortable. You have to pick the ultimate Survivor roster from former players. You can’t choose anyone from this season. Who are your 18 picks and why?
Ah I wish I could but that’s impossible to answer. Winners at War was obviously an attempt at that, but even that falls short because there are so many amazing players who didn’t win their season. We have at least a hundred Hall Of Fame players and you never know when we may call on some of them to come out and play again, so I’ll keep my thoughts to myself, for now.
Give advice to a diehard Survivor superfan like myself who’s applied to be on the show a bunch (30+) times. How does a fan get on the show?
There isn’t any secret sauce to getting on the show. Often it’s just about timing. Everything has to line up in order to make it on Survivor. It isn’t about being “good enough,” it’s usually about being the right fit at the right time. That’s why it’s impossible to lay out the secret formula. I always tell people the same thing, just be yourself. That’s all you can do and all you need to do. I know that’s a frustrating answer, but it’s the truth.
There’s been whispers about a celebrity version of the show for years. Considering how many well-known names are fans of the series, is there any possibility of that happening?
I think it’s unlikely, only due to the difficulty of getting actors, comedians, singers, athletes to all have the same availability. That’s the biggest issue. Nobody is ever free at the same time. And as much as I’d love to explore a celebrity version, I gotta be honest, I’m not sure most of them could handle it. Survivor is no joke.
How do you think you’d do if you were on Survivor?
I’m just barely aware enough to realize that I’d be blindsided in a brutal betrayal, and that millions of Survivor fans would love to see it happen!
Survivor Season 43 premieres Wednesday, September 21st on CBS, Fubo TV, and Paramount+.
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot, and aspiring hand model. When he’s not applying for Survivor for the 31st time, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.
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