While "Survivor" host Jeff Probst may tell voted-off contestants at the end of every episode that "the tribe has spoken," audiences have spoken and there's no end in sight for the CBS's stalwart reality series "Survivor." Our Jim Halterman talked to Probst about how the Mark Burnett-produced series is a lot like life, whether brains or brawn get you further in the competition and his response to being called sexy.
Jim Halterman: After 18 seasons of "Survivor," why haven't people figured out how to win the game with ease?
Jeff Probst: I don't think that's the right question. I think the way to look at it is from the opposite side, which is that you cannot change who you are. You can walk into this game and say 'Alright, I'm going to be middle of the pack, I'm not going to ruffle any feathers, I'm going to make strong alliances and I'm going to listen really well.' But if you're a natural leader, then that's a bunch of bullshit and what you're really going to do is on the day two you're going to get so frustrated with the guy in the black shorts that doesn't get it and you're going to say. 'Listen, what you need to do is put the rope like this and you're done' and now you're a leader and you can't turn back. And the other guy goes 'Why are you saying that?' Well, he's saying it because it's in his nature. It's the whole scorpion and the frog thing. The frog gives the scorpion a ride and then the scorpion kills him. Why? Because it's what I do.
JH: So "Survivor" is just a big metaphor for life.
JP: Oh, yeah. 100%. "Survivor" has always been a microcosm of the same human interaction that's going on in the office or the family or in the pick-up basketball game. You cannot change who you are. You drop in on a group of guys playing basketball, within about three minutes you can tell that's the nice guy. He just likes to get out here and exercise. But the dude in the middle? The tall guy? He's the boss. He's a pain in the ass and he's always right. We see it all the time.
JH: The last episode that aired was interesting when Spencer revealed to the camera that he's gay but made a choice not to tell anyone else because he feared it would influence the game. But then he got the boot anyway and it had nothing to do with his sexuality. What do you make of that line of thinking?
JP: I think Spencer was right. I think his instincts were that guys like J.T. wouldn't know what to do with it and in "Survivor" you're playing a game that is about elimination. The goal is don't give nobody a reason to get rid of me and all it takes is something that's different than everyone else. I think in Spencer's case, being gay, when you talk about "Survivor" bringing together people from all walks of life that can be enough. If the show was only filled with New Yorkers or Californians maybe you'd have a different way of looking at it but when it's filled with people from all over the country, you've got to be careful what you admit. You know, Brendan created Bear Naked Granola and it's worth like $20 million. He damn sure doesn't want anybody to know that.
JH: Would you say it's more of a brain game than a brawn game or a little of both.
JP: I think it is neither. I think "Survivor" is first and foremost a social game. Typically, the people who do well, not always the winner but do well, typically are the same people who do well at parties and other places where they're good at reading people, pop into a conversation and pop out. That's the essence of the game and then layered on top of that is the physicality required to last a long time, be good at challenges so you can win your way to the end and also the brain power to be able to constantly assess and reassess the different miracle combinations that are on-going at any given time. If I do this with her, and she does that with him that leaves me in this situation but if this happens, and you're constantly running these schemes so I don't mean to imply that it's enough to be a person who's great at cocktail parties. I'm just saying the foundation is if you can't get along people, it's very hard to win this game because the structure of "Survivor" requires that seven people come back and decide who wins and those are seven people that you helped vote out so you have to be incredibly diplomatic in how you get rid of people in addition to it being a difficult game.
JH: When you're actually filming, can you tell when you have a good crop of contestants and the show is going well or do you have to wait for the editing to get in there?
JP: That's a good question. I have the same philosophy every season, which is, I have my own gut take and whenever we come home that's pretty much what I say in interviews. I highlight what I think is the best part but the audience is the ultimate decider. They're the ultimate judges and they determine whether it was good or not. We've had seasons when we came back and I thought they were really pretty good and the audience was ho-hum about. Likewise, we came home from Gabon, which I didn't think was that great of a season but I had a lot of people tell me that they really enjoyed it. One of the things "Survivor" has going for it is it's a really good format. The structure of the show tends to work over and over and over. You put new people in the same situation and then you think what are they going to do and what would I do if I were in that same situation.
JH: Talk to me about Exile Island. I love the concept and it seems to be a breeding ground for building alliances. How did you bring that into the show?
JP: Exile Island is a great example of the show informing us because it was actually born back in our tenth season in Palou when we had this woman Jeaneau and she ended up all alone on this island and she was the least likely person that you would ever think would survive. She didn't know how to make fire, she was afraid, she didn't like the water but she was left on her own and lo and behold she changed her life. She got scrappy and she made fire and it was a huge epiphany for her, this great dramatic moment and that's where that idea was born. Wow, isolating someone on their own is a pretty good breeding ground for drama. But this season we tried something different where we bring opposite tribes together and we got some gold. We got an alliance that's a cross-tribal alliance and nobody really knows about it so it has potential to be really powerful.
JH: Is there going to be another All-Star edition?
JP: I would imagine we're going to do another one. I was not a fan in the beginning. When Moonves announced that we were doing the first All-Stars in Season 8, I thought What?! And clearly, as is so often the case, I was completely wrong since it was one of our most popular seasons ever and then we just did Fans Versus Favorites, which is one of my all-time favorite seasons. It was fantastic. I think we're going to be doing another one. One of the great things about reality shows is you find these great characters and then you only get them for one season so why not bring them back. The audience seems to love seeing their favorite people again.
JH: Can the show go on infinitely and how long do you plan on sticking around?
JP: First part of the question, I have no idea. We haven't lost a regular Thursday night since 2003. That's a very little known fact maybe but in terms of the television industry it's well known. Thursday night at 8 is pretty much owned by "Survivor." And we've had show after show after show come up against us and every season I'm told by somebody that this is the season we're going to knocked off by somebody but we've continued to hold our own. We have such a loyal audience, they're so good to us that I think the show could run awhile longer and as far as my involvement, I'll be completely honest with you, I have no idea. We're in an economy where having any job is a blessing and I have one of the greatest jobs that any mortal could hope to have and, yet, I don't know how long.
JH: I asked "Amazing Race" host Phil Keoghan a few weeks ago if he ever expected to become a sex symbol by hosting a reality show.
JP: I've always thought Phil was sexy so it doesn't surprise me at all. [Laughs.] Who said I was a sex symbol?
JH: I've heard it. It's out there.
JP: I don't really look at it that way. I'm trying to answer your question.
JH: You've already said more than Phil. He was completely stymied.
JP: There's no way to answer it because you sound like an idiot no matter what. It's been an interesting ride to go from absolute anonymity to being on a show that is in 15 million homes every week. That part is what's weird. I travel around and I meet people who stop me all the time in airports and places and they talk about how much they love the show and that feels really good because "Survivor" is still a family show and I'm proud of it. I'm so glad I'm on a show and can meet a seven year old and talk to him about how much he loves Ozzie but I can also meet a 77-year old who can say 'In my hey-day I would've kicked ass on that show.' That is the best part. And I think that although I had a fairly rocky start I think for the most part I've earned trust in the people who watch the show and that makes me feel very good. I'm very proud of "Survivor."
"Survivor: Tocantins" airs Thursday nights at 8:00/7:00c on CBS.